Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | Features

Where's the Justice?

By Tina Owen

Taunts and jeers fill the air as guards force their prisoners to perform push-ups and then arrange them in sexually humiliating positions. Caught on film, their behavior records both man’s inhumanity to man and the ways in which power corrupts.

Sound familiar? Similar photographs of American troops brutally asserting their authority over prisoners inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison splashed across newspapers and television screens last year. But these particular scenes of abuse date back to 1971, when Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a landmark and controversial experiment into the effects of prison life. To his surprise and dismay, some students recruited to play the role of guards in a simulated prison soon became sadistic, while many “prisoners” became emotionally disturbed. These transformations were so sudden that Zimbardo abandoned the two-week experiment after only a few days.

As they watch this grainy black-and-white, real-life drama play out on a television screen in a Jessup Hall classroom this past February, UI students note obvious parallels between the Stanford and Iraq incidents. Perhaps that’s not surprising. History repeats itself—and it also provides plenty of subject matter for a class that examines the nature of human cruelty.

Although an infamous Abu Ghraib photo showing a female G.I. holding a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash appears prominently on the course website, Professor Alfonso Damico says that current events didn’t inspire “The Faces of Injustice: Thinking Politically About Cruelty.” Instead, he wanted to turn a common political subject—justice—on its head.

Pofessor Al Damico and students

"This course is concerned less with the good that we might do than with the cruelties that we might prevent,” he says. “It is most simply a study of victims, their victimizers, and the processes of victimization.”

He shows the Stanford film not only for the links to Abu Ghraib but also to throw a spotlight on the causes of such behavior. In this case, according to Zimbardo, the situation in which the student-guards found themselves accounts for their cruel behavior. The situation overrode ethical fail-safe mechanisms. Their normal personalities concealed behind dark glasses and military-style uniforms, the guards became increasingly vindictive as they followed orders to control their prisoners. Well-adjusted, middle-class students became monsters.

"One political theory says that if you know the right thing to do, then you will act on that knowledge: it’s empowering and enabling. I don’t believe that,” says Damico. “A number of socio-psychological accounts show normal, good people who participated in crimes of obedience, inflicting suffering on innocent people. The issue isn’t that they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, but that they found themselves in circumstances, such as a hierarchical relationship, where they apparently lost the capacity to care about knowing what’s right.”

The professor cites another historic example to illustrate his point: Adolf Eichmann. This good husband, father, and churchgoer willingly participated in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” “Evil isn’t always going to show up and announce itself in ways that are dramatic and obvious,” says Damico. “Evil can occur simply because people are trying to do their jobs efficiently.”

Perhaps the answer to understanding and preventing such cruelty has less to do with social psychology or religion than with politics. That’s why “Faces of Injustice” is offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ political science department. “It’s about relationships between rulers and ruled, the limits of authority,” Damico explains. “Those are perennial political questions. I want students to get out of this course the fact that politics has the potential for doing great harm—and for preventing harm. It can mobilize ethnic hatreds but it can also put into place institutions that encourage the practice of tolerance.”

M.C. Esher's Angels and Devils

Victims may be easy to identify, but those responsible for victimization can be shadowy characters. In the Abu Ghraib case, who’s to blame? The guards, their superior officers, the private contractors, the intelligence service, or any of the other agencies involved? “It’s difficult to say that this one person or agency made the decision that led to the abuse of power,” says Damico. “Clear lines of authority are necessary if you want to stop such abuses. It’s important that the buck stops somewhere.”

The course explores the fuzzy gray areas inhabited by morals and ethics. “It moralizes about politics. It puts the problem of human suffering in different ethical frameworks,” says Damico. “I approach cruelty from this standpoint because we don’t speak enough about injustice. Many students come from backgrounds where they can’t imagine what it’s like to be a victim. Looking at political cruelty makes you consider victims.”

The reading list, which ranges from The Book of Job to John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, demonstrates that philosophers and political thinkers have long wrestled with notions of abuse of power and injustice. Religion, politics, morals, and human psychology intertwine in a tangled skein.

To help unravel it, the soft-spoken professor poses tough questions. “In the same situation, would you act like those guards in the Stanford experiment?” “What’s the difference between misfortune and cruelty, between injustice and evil?” “If you tolerate something you believe is immoral, do you become complicit in it?” “Can we fight terrorism without using torture?” “Do the ends justify the means?”

Such questions aren’t simply academic exercises. Damico encourages his 16 students to consider them in terms of their own lives and beliefs. Add the Iraq War, gay marriage, and other current events into the equation, and students gain a deeper, more personal understanding of political theories. “Professor Damico is good at giving us concrete examples that we can relate to,” says Todd Lantz, a political science and communication studies junior from West Des Moines. “It’s not a case of ‘Explain Locke’s theory’ so much as ‘Apply it to something that’s happening now,’ such as the recent tsunami or 9/11.”

With both ends of the political spectrum represented in class, discussions can become heated, as when Damico poses the question of whether gay marriage should be tolerated. A Republican student jumps into the fray with his vehement take on the subject, while his liberal peers roll their eyes and quickly come back with their own sharp rebuttals. Professor Damico interjects with an important reminder. “Intolerance is the incapacity to accept things we don’t like,” he says. “But tolerance doesn’t mean agreeing with something you don’t like.”

Students seem to relish the opportunity to express their opinions in class and in their essays. “There’s definitely the expectation to say something intelligent in front of your peers,” says Jason Jaffe, a political science/American history sophomore from Downers Grove, Illinois. “And, Professor Damico lets you take your paper in whichever direction you want to go. It’s a challenge to have to narrow down everything you’ve read and learned, but it’s helped me be more critical.”

"Faces of Injustice” is the kind of class that sends you home with a headache—one that results when your brain stretches to accommodate new ways of thinking. Students wade through troublesome issues of identity, tolerance, and intolerance. They consider crimes of obedience and genocide, as well as the complex rights and wrongs of war, terror, and torture.

Beginners would flounder here. The course demands familiarity with philosophical and political criticism, as well as major Western political and philosophical ideas and theories. Apart from their required participation in class discussions, students have to shoulder a heavy reading and writing workload. The first two of five assigned essays are due within the first two weeks of class. But political science majors (several who’ve taken courses previously with Damico) predominate in this classroom, and they seem to appreciate being stretched. Says Lantz, “You can’t just read and regurgitate; you have to think about these issue for yourself.”

Johannes Waldschuetz, a graduate history/political science student from Uerberlingen, Germany, agrees. “I’d never thought of cruelty in a political or philosophical way before, but it invites you to consider current events and your own perceptions of cruelty,” he says. “This class encourages you to think about morals, what people should or shouldn’t do.”

Cruelty, evil, intolerance. Such overused words fly around Damico’s classroom as the professor helps students get their political and moral vocabulary in good order. “With every session, my understanding of these issues grows,” says Waldschuetz. “It’s like a puzzle, and by the end of the course I hope to have all the pieces, although I don’t know if there is an answer to injustice and cruelty.”

Indeed, Damico warns his students, “I have no answers to some of the questions you raise or the observations you make.”

Perhaps there are no easy answers. But the kind of issues discussed in “Faces of Injustice” shape our world and our humanity.