The Demons Within

by John Pugsley

“In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden – the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain…”

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The unfolding story of American and British guards torturing prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison has shocked the world. How could these governments have condoned or ignored such things? And what kind of disturbed and perverted individuals would inflict gratuitous pain on helpless victims?

Sadly, the story is no shock to me or to anyone familiar with the nature of man and government. Numerous controlled experiments have demonstrated that when given power, the instinct for inflicting injury, pain, and death, lies just under the veneer of civility.

In an early 1960s experiment, Harvard researcher Stanley Milgram recruited college students to help “teach” slow “learners.” A white-coated “experimenter” instructed the students to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to a learner each time the learner made a mistake. In spite of believing the shocks were real, two-thirds delivered the highest level of shock labeled “danger – severe shock,” as they watched the learner writhe in (pretended) pain. In a similar study conducted in Germany, over 85% of the subjects administered what they were told would be a lethal electric shock to the learner! The imprimatur of approval from higher authority dissolved the cultural taboo against torture, and released the hidden satisfaction of inflicting pain.

In the infamous 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment,” researchers recruited a dozen students to participate in a psychological study of how normal people act under prison conditions. The student volunteers were assigned randomly to be either guards or prisoners. As the experiment progressed, and in spite of being instructed not to do so, the guards used their position of power to steadily increase their coercive aggression, humiliation, and dehumanization of the prisoners. As with Abu Ghraib, the worst abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. Researchers terminated the planned two-week experiment after only six days because the guards became dangerously sadistic and the prisoners became pathologically depressed.

The source of these sadistic tendencies is our evolutionary heritage. In her studies of African chimpanzees, primatologist Jane Goodall provided clear evidence that Homo sapiens closest primate cousins mutilate and kill other chimpanzees when the perpetrators are in a position of power. Male langurs, another primate species, attack and kill males of other bands, then methodically kill the infants. In an eerie reflection, the Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon exhibits similar behavior. Yanomamo men sneak up on a neighboring village and, after killing or chasing away the men, kill all the children. To the Yanomamo, this is exhilarating entertainment and a source of pride. The chilling similarity between the primate and Yanomamo bloodlust and the smiling braggadocio of the Abu Ghraib guards represents a genetic connection millions of years old.

Ten thousand years of civilization has tempered, but hardly eliminated, these violent instincts. And the overwhelming majority of the world’s population believes that government is the best means of suppressing their expression. Sadly, the opposite is true. The evolution of government has concentrated power in the hands of a few, teasing out the animal instincts of the few who wield that power. As Lord Acton warned, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”