“Not some bad apples: How people can turn into abuse perpetrators. Lesson from Abu Ghraib and Bosnia Herzegovina”

Senior Thesis by Fabiana Fuschi


1. Introduction

After the Second World War and as a consequence of the violence perpetrated in Nazi concentration camps, where more than 6 million people lost their lives, scholars started to question how such atrocities could have happened. Among them was Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher who developed a very controversial concept after having witnessed the trial of one of the main exponents of Nazism, Colonel Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was the person in charge of the organization of transportation of Jewish people towards the concentration camps. He was arrested in Argentina and put on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, where he was sentenced to death the following year.

Before attending the trial, Arendt expected to see an unscrupulous, vicious man- the personification of evil (Arendt, 1963). Instead, what she found out was that Eichmann was an ordinary man, with an ordinary life and habits, who, as he always stated during the trial, was simply performing his job. Arendt discovered that Eichmann was not a monster, but a normal, average human being. Starting from what she noticed about Adolf Eichmann, Arendt began developing the concept of the banality of evil. The concept gave the title to a book that came out in 1963 and was called “Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil.” It analyzed the Eichmann trial and made reflections about what the word evil means.

The purpose of this thesis is to analyze if and how the theory of Hannah Arendt can be applied to recent episodes of serious human rights violations and to what extent the concept of banality of evil can be generalized to other situations. To develop my argument, I chose two social psychology experiments as starting points: Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment. Both experiments investigate, with two different experimental settings, how average people can end up committing cruel actions under certain circumstances and isolate the variables that might give the greatest contribution to the perpetration of cruel behaviors.

The first chapter of the thesis will deal with the methodology and analyze in detail the two experiments and the variables that were isolated by Milgram and Zimbardo. Chapter two and three will examine two contemporary case studies and see if the factors highlighted by the two social psychologists contributed to the perpetration of atrocities. Specifically, chapter two will take into consideration the infamous case of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, which to some extent resembles the Stanford Prison Experiment, as will later be explained. On the other hand, chapter three will deal with an equally serious, but different case: the abuses perpetrated in post-war Bosnia Herzegovina by UN Peacekeepers. The reason why I chose a case study that apparently does not seem to have any connection with the two experiments is because, in this way, it will be possible to understand if some variables repeat in very different circumstances and situations.

Before proceeding to the analysis of the two experiments, it is worth taking a step back and examining what Arendt meant with the word evil and how she came up with the idea of banal evil. In order to describe the crimes perpetrated by Nazis in concentration camps, Arendt initially used the term “radical evil,” which she borrowed from philosopher Immanuel Kant, but used in a different way. For Kant, the reason why people fail to obey the rules of moral law, which is based on reason and derives from religion, can be found in their innate weakness and propensity to evil. Moreover, because propensity to evil is innate and affects the whole life of human beings, it is also radical (Calder, 2014). On the other hand, for Arendt, radical evil “involves making human beings as human beings superfluous” and is accomplished when “human beings are made into living corpses who lack any spontaneity or freedom” (D’Entreves, 2006). According to Arendt, radical evil is not perpetrated for motives that can be rationally understood, such as self-interest, but only to reinforce a totalitarian control over people’s lives and ways of being (D’Entreves, 2006). The ultimate manifestation of radical evil is in totalitarian regimes. For this reason, in her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt chooses to examine the effects and consequences of radical evil in the Nazi totalitarian regime. Only after having attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she developed the new concept of banal evil. Indeed, she noticed how can be banal for common people to commit cruel actions; Eichmann, she argued, was simply following the orders received from his superiors. She added also that during the Second World War, under the Nazi regime, the concepts of good and evil had been completely reversed and thus Eichmann was simply following the new rules of the new world in which he was living (Arendt, 1963). To be more precise, in that period, sending Jews to the concentration camps was legal: the government itself established to do so. Therefore, people like Eichmann were not monsters, but they were simply doing their job and following orders.

Arendt argues that Nazi exponents, like Eichmann, had a very common life: they had family, hobbies, friends, and at the end of the day came back home to their husbands and wives and spent time with their children (Arendt, 1963). Paradoxically, eight out of fourteen men who gave birth to the Final Solution had university doctorates (Myers, 2008). These people were simply acting in world in which the normal order of things was reversed. As David Luban explains, “The Jerusalem judges […] missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case, namely that under the conditions of the Third Reich only exceptions could be expected to act normally”(Luban, 2011, p. 624). In other words, the circumstances under which Eichmann and the other Nazi members were acting prevented them from realizing that they were doing something morally deplorable.

The expression “banality of evil” appears only two times in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and Arendt clearly defines it as “not stupidity, but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” from the standpoint of someone else (Luban, 2011, p. 626). According to Arendt, the inability to take others’ point of view and to understand the consequences of the actions performed might be the causes of extremely cruel and inhumane actions. The banality of evil comes out precisely when the perpetrators of evil actions are unable to separate themselves from the environment in which they are operating.

As it was already stated, the experiments that will be analyzed in the following chapter will try to provide a practical explanation to the reason why people can engage themselves in actions that under different circumstances they would never imagine performing. In chapter two and three, the findings of the experiments will be applied to the two case studies briefly discussed above. At the end of the thesis, if my analysis will be complete and exhaustive, readers should have a practical understanding of what banal evil is and how this concept can be applied to multiple situations and under very different circumstances.


2.    Methodology

The extent to which under certain circumstances normal people can engage in deplorable behaviors has always been an argument of debate since Hannah Arendt developed her controversial concept of the banality of evil following the Eichmann trial in 1961. Arendt (1963) argued that everyone can commit cruel actions and that, in Nazi Germany, people like Eichmann were only following the orders received from their superiors. In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out a very contentious experiment in which he tried to identify and isolate the variables that play a role when normal people engage themselves in morally deplorable actions. Indeed, he thought that “Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose,” (Milgram, 1974, p.1). Ten years later, in 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo also decided to analyze how power can shape personal relationships and lead people to commit cruel actions against other human beings. Both psychologists tried to understand the mechanisms under which questionable behaviors take place and analyze which situational factors could lead people to perpetrate atrocities. In the next paragraphs, I will analyze both experiments and the variables that have been isolated by Milgram and Zimbardo highlighting similar patterns between the two and the situational elements that significantly contribute to explain the perpetration of certain actions.

Milgram’s experiment on obedience


In 1961, Stanley Milgram decided to test the power of obedience and how people can end up committing cruel actions if they are told to do so by a perceived authority figure. He did his experiment in reaction to the Holocaust carried out by Nazis that caused the death of around 6 million people. He thought that blind obedience to the new rules of Nazi Germany could explain why thousands of citizens ended up becoming cruel executioners.

At Yale University, Milgram set up a series of experiments in order to measure the level of obedience combined with other variables that could have caused the systematic perpetuation of inhumane actions in Nazi Germany. He wanted to investigate the extent to which people would follow the orders received by a perceived authority figure and the variables that might affect the likelihood of obeying. The experiments involved the experimenter who played the role of the authority figure, a learner, who was always a confederate (a person who was actually part of the experiment), and a teacher, who was the actual participant. At the beginning of each experiment there was a fake random assignment phase in which the real participant was always given the role of the teacher. In the main version of the experiment, the teacher was instructed to read the learner a series of paired words and ask the learner to remember them. At that point, the teacher sat in front of a “shock generator”, whose shock levels ranged from 15 to 450 volts. The switches had different labels, which went from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock.” His duty was to give the learner a shock when a mistake was made starting from the lowest level and increasing it every time a wrong answer was provided. During the experiment, it was very likely that the teacher turned to the experimenter for advice. The experimenter always responded with a series of prods, from “Please continue with the experiment,” to “You have no choice, you must go on” (Milgram, 1974, p. 21). The experiment terminated when after the last prod, the teacher refused to obey. As the shock level increased, the teacher could clearly hear the learner in the other room screaming, refusing to answer, and begging to stop the experiment. The main measure of the experiment was the teachers’ last shock before they refused to continue. The results were quite shocking: 65% of participants reached 450 volts (Milgram, 1974).

The fact that the teacher did not give directly the 450 level of shock, but gradually increased the level made him/her more likely to administer all the shocks of the “shock generator.” This persuasion principle is called foot-in-the-door and is particularly effective because the teacher was more likely to think that a level slightly higher than the precedent could not harm so much his/her learner and thus comply until the last level.

As previously mentioned, across several experimental manipulations, Milgram tried to investigate the factors that affect the teacher’s likelihood to follow authority orders. He carried out a series of post-experimental interviews, in which he revealed that the learner did not receive any electric shock and questioned the teachers on what might have been the causes of their behavior. Among them, the most relevant were teacher’s proximity to the learner, or to the authority, the perceived legitimacy of the authority, and whether or not an additional participant, who defied the authority’s orders, was present (Milgram, 1974).

When the teacher was close to the learner, either because they were placed in the same room, or because s/he had to place the learner’s hand on a shock plate to deliver the shock, the level of obedience diminished. When the victim was in another room, instead, a higher number of participants were likely to deliver up to 450 volts. Several reasons can explain this behavior. For instance, it is important to note that the learner’s proximity elicited an empathetic response on the teacher and made him/her less likely to administer the shock, especially because the learner’s proximity may have caused a feeling of shame and guilty on the teacher. On the other hand, when the learner was distant, he/she was more likely to be put out of mind; a lot of participants declared to have experienced an emotional detachment from their learner (Milgram, 1974). Indeed, when the learner was far, the teacher did not perceive his/her actions as connected to the pain of the learner. Therefore, in order to acquire a behavioral disposition towards the learner, the teacher should have been in his/her same room. Finally, when the learner was far from the teacher and the experimenter was in the same room, the teacher experienced him/herself as being part of the same group of the experimenter, from which the learner was excluded; in this case, the teacher was more likely to obey to the experimenter’s requests and administer all the levels of shock (Milgram, 1974).

Milgram demonstrated that proximity to the authority figure is also crucial in explaining obedience rates. In the experimental condition in which the participants were closer to the authority figure, they were more likely to administer up until the 450 shock level than when the experimenter was physically absent. Later on, they explained their behaviors as a consequence of the presence of the authority figure. Moreover, when the experimenter took full responsibility for what may have happened to the learner, the teacher was more likely to administer all the levels of shock because he/she felt liberated by the burden of being responsible for the harm of another person (Milgram, 1974). It is worth remembering that the authority is only effective as long as it is perceived as being legitimate. Different characteristics may affect the perceived legitimacy of a person, for example wearing a uniform, having a particular way of talking, or showing knowledge (Myers, 2008).

In Milgram’s experiments, participants’ willingness to obey the experimenter’s request could have been facilitated by the prestige of Yale University where they were being tested. In order to test this other variable, Milgram performed another experiment in a nearby town called Bridgeport. With the same experimental setting, 48% of teachers gave until the last level of shock (compared to the 65% at Yale University). According to Milgram, the reason why a lower number of people blindly obeyed to the authority figure could be explained with the fact that “if commands of a potentially harmful or destructive sort are to be perceived as legitimate they must occur within some sort of institutional structure” (Milgram, 1974, p. 70). However, almost half of the participants obeyed to the authority requests also at Bridgeport; therefore, it is possible to argue that the prestige of the structure matters, but is not the most important variable to consider.

An important determinant of obedience was the presence of a dissident participant. Indeed, in one version of his experiment, Milgram (1974) included two other confederates in the room with the teacher. The confederates were instructed to complain about the modality of the experiment and leave the room. At that point, the teacher was required to continue the experiment alone. In this condition, 90% of the participants followed the example of the other two confederates and refused to continue administering the shocks.

Just like Arendt’ s concept of the banality of evil was highly criticized by her contemporaries as evil acts were thought to be the products of evil people, Milgram’s colleagues had predicted that only 1% of the participants of his experiment -the most sadistic ones- would have gone along (Milgram, 1974). This happened because people tend to attribute behavior only to internal characteristics and discount the environment in which an action is performed. In social psychology, this tendency is called fundamental attribution error (FAE) and is very common among people (Myers, 2008).

Milgram’s experiments showed that under certain conditions (for example in the presence of an authority figure) even regular, normal people can be convinced to commit acts that go against their moral principles. According to Milgram, “the most fundamental lesson of our study [is]: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process” (Milgram, 1974, p. 6). All the principles highlighted by Milgram and discussed above can be useful in explaining why during the Holocaust German soldiers and bureaucrats like Eichmann displayed horrific behaviors. For instance, the concept of proximity to the victim fully applies to the events of the Holocaust and in particular to Eichmann’s case. Indeed, he was the man in charge of Jewish transportation to the concentration camps. This means that probably he never directly met any of the people he was going to send to the death camps. The physical and moral distance he had with his victims made his work much easier to carry out. At the end, what he simply had to do was to put a signature on a piece of paper. Moreover, it is very important to take into consideration the power of the situation when trying to explain why people commit certain actions because, as demonstrated by Milgram “situations can induce ordinary people to capitulate to cruelty” (Myers, 2008, p. 208). Indeed, in very complex societies, where the normal order of things is reversed, people find it easier to engage in actions that go against their moral principles. This happens especially when they are part of a complex bureaucratic system where they can be easily substituted by someone else, where they play no direct role in committing atrocities, and where the punishment for not obeying is perceived very high (Myers, 2008).

Zimbardo’s analysis


Some years after Stanley Milgram’s experiment, another social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, further addressed how the context in which people find themselves operating can influence the way they act, when trying to explain the reasons behind “evil” behaviors. Specifically, Zimbardo was interested in investigating the role of deindividuation, anonymity, social modeling processes, education and socialization processes, and the “evil of inaction” and how these elements can have a significant impact on people’s behavior.

Among all the elements considered by Zimbardo, one of the most crucial is deindividuation and feeling of anonymity. The term deindividuation refers to the extent to which people lose a sense of self-awareness and evaluation when they are part of a group that has a strong influence on them (Myers, 2008). Zimbardo highlighted that even children can engage in particularly aggressive behaviors when they wear masks and know that they cannot be identified (Zimbardo, 2004). Therefore, if even children are aware of the power of anonymity, it is very easy to believe that adults can commit cruel actions when they are put in a situation where they are not easily recognizable. In order to prove the power of this variable, Zimbardo carried out a series of interesting experiments in 1971. His participants were young women who were instructed to administer painful levels of shock to other women they could see and hear from a one-way mirror. Half of the women were assigned to a condition of anonymity, while the other half was identifiable. The results were shocking, but already predicted by Zimbardo (and of course by Milgram in 1961). The women who were in the anonymity condition delivered twice as many shocks as the others in the individuation condition. The only difference between this experiment and Milgram’s one was that Zimbardo did not have the role of the authority figure; therefore, women administered high levels of shock on their own without being encouraged by a legitimate authority (Zimbardo, 2004). According to Zimbardo, a feeling of anonymity and deindividuation reduces the sense of accountability of people and makes them more likely to engage in more cruel actions if they are put in certain situations.

Zimbardo was very interested in explaining how Nazi people became cruel murderers. He attributed the shift in behavior of thousands of ordinary people to social modeling processes. The expression refers to the extent to which people acquire social behaviors by observing others’ actions and noting the consequences (Myers, 2008).  To explain how these processes take place, Zimbardo gave the example of the Nazi Reserve Battalion 101. Its components were recruited with no special selection; they were “as ordinary as could be imagined” (Zimbardo, 2004, p.35). They had the secret mission to find and exterminate all the Jews living in the Polish villages. At the beginning, records indicate that they refused to systematically kill innocent people, but with the passing of time, they became cruel murderers. By the end of the mission, 90% of the Reserve Battalion men participated in the killing of Polish Jews; they not only carried out mass murders, but also proudly recorded their actions with pictures. Nazi Germany is a paradigm example of social modeling processes. Indeed, Nazis based their propaganda on education processes that highlighted who the real enemy was and how he/she deserved to be treated. During Nazism, there were school programs entirely devoted at praising the Aryan race and disregarding the Jews. German children were systematically instructed at hating Jews and seeing them as the enemy of their country and source of German problems. Since 1933, “no target of Nazification took higher priority than the reeducation of Germany’s youth” (Zimbardo, 2004, p.37). All German textbooks depicted how Jews had deceived Aryans and got rich at their expense. According to Arendt (1963), the banality of evil can be experienced when evil is institutionalized and the normal order under which things should work is reversed. In this kind of world, engaging in cruel actions against the new enemy (Jews, but also Roma people, sexual minorities, and political dissidents) was perfectly normal. On the other hand, not performing certain actions against the new institutionalized enemy was no more the rule, but the exception.

A final element that should be taken into consideration according to Zimbardo is the so-called “evil of inaction” (Zimbardo, 2004, p.42). Indeed, according to him, not acting against an injustice is a form of evil itself. He used the example of Kitty Genovese case when a young woman was murdered and no one of the 39 people living in her same building acted to impede her death, even if they heard her screaming and asking for help. Zimbardo pointed out that people are less likely to help others in need when they are part of a group and think that there are others that could give help at their place. Zimbardo stressed that even at Abu Ghraib there were a lot of people (doctors and nurses, for example) that knew the kind of abuses that were going on, but refused to speak up and denounce the perpetrators (Zimbardo, 2004). The same could be said of Nazi Germany: even if a lot of people didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps, a lot of others knew, but never did anything to prevent atrocities from happening.

The Stanford Prison experiment

All the several factors analyzed by Zimbardo played a crucial role in the controversial experiment he set up at Stanford University in 1971. Originally, the experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but because of the turn it took and the actions that were carried out, the experimenters had to stop it after less than one week. The participants of the experiment were chosen among university students who were evaluated in order to choose the most normal and average ones, both physically and mentally. The students who were recruited were randomly assigned to play either the role of the guard or the prisoner. Six days after the beginning of the experiment, students that less than one week before were pacific had begun behaving in extremely sadistic ways and inflicting pain and suffering on the prisoners, by involving them in humiliating actions. On the other side, the prisoners had fully internalized their roles and started to experience stress disorders and emotional breakdowns. They had become silent and obedient in order not to be bothered by the guards. The Stanford Prison experiment highlighted a lot of the elements that had been already isolated by Zimbardo. For example, the power of anonymity was highlighted by the fact that guards wore glasses that made them less accountable. Moreover, the guards carried out very sadistic punishments against the prisoners, who were completely dehumanized. It is important not to discount the important role played by the prison itself, in which the guards were allowed to behave cruelly against the prisoners. Indeed, the prison setting was a sort of institutionalization of evil, where the role played by guards and prisoners influenced their behaviors and allowed them to display particularly cruel actions (Zimbardo, 2004).


As Milgram and Zimbardo scientifically tested, no one seems to be immune from engaging in cruel actions; for this reason, it is important to know which variables can cause abusive behaviors. It is clear that the power of the situation plays a pivotal role in the display of cruel behaviors. Moreover, as highlighted by Milgram, the presence of an authority that is perceived to be legitimate is one of the main causes of certain actions. Removing the authority figure or introducing an element of dissent can significantly lower the levels of obedience.

Together with obedience, other factors play an important role: anonymity, deindividuation, social modeling processes, institutionalized evil (and reversed order of things), and evil of inaction. As it was demonstrated with the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971, the combination of all these elements can have tremendous consequences on people’s behavior. Indeed, average normal students ended up committing actions that they would have never imagined themselves performing. On the other side, the “prisoners” became very good at respecting the rules and blindly obeying in order to avoid sufferings.

It can be argued that what happened at Stanford was the same that happened in concentration camps, where both the kapos and the prisoners had internalized their roles and started to behave as a consequence. Therefore, the kapos often displayed sadistic and particularly cruel behaviors towards the prisoners, while the latter developed a series of strategies to avoid punishments as much as possible in order to survive.

If it is true that committing certain actions is so banal that virtually anyone can be involved, it is worth analyzing other situations where abusive behaviors were displayed. In particular, it is interesting to address the mistreatments at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 and the UN Peacekeepers’ violations of human rights in Bosnia Herzegovina in the late 1990s because both events involved people who were supposed to represent the “good side” and that instead ended up in performing the opposite.

During the analysis, it is worth remembering that Zimbardo and Milgram’s results are based on two controlled experimental settings; therefore, there is a significant difference between them and the two case studies that will be addressed in the following chapters. Specifically, in real life situations there are numerous variables involved that are difficult to control or isolate, but that might play a role, in this case, in the abuse perpetration. The next chapter will analyze the events at Abu Ghraib, while the third chapter will deal with the mistreatments perpetrated by the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia Herzegovina. Both chapters will analyze the variables involved in order to understand if the events have a similar or different pattern and what can be done to avoid the perpetration of such deplorable actions.


3.    Abu Ghraib

abu ghraib

The infamous case of the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 is a good example of how situational factors can contribute to the transformation of average people into cruel torturers. In analyzing the variables that might have played a role in the abuse perpetration, it is clear that some of those that were isolated by Philip Zimbardo during the Stanford prison experiment in 1971 were present also in the context of Abu Ghraib. However, the prison was a real-life situation and therefore other elements that were not analyzed by Zimbardo came into play. This chapter will analyze the role played by the variables isolated by Zimbardo and other factors that came out specifically in the context of Abu Ghraib in order to understand what contribution they gave in the transformation of US soldiers into abuse perpetrators.

The prison of Abu Ghraib is located 32 km from Baghdad, Iraq, in a zone where several violent revolts against the American occupation were taking place in the period in which the abuses were perpetrated, during the second half of 2003. The prison could host a maximum of 5000 inmates, but it ended up in containing a higher number. People that were kept there were suspected of being part of rebel groups against the American presence in Iraq. In 2003, the prison ended up hosting most of the civilians that were accused of not clearly defined “suspicious activities” against the US (Zimbardo, 2008, p. 476). Among the detainees were not only male prisoners, but also several women and teenagers. After they had been arrested and interrogated, they were kept in the prison to avoid future revolts or reprisals. The prison was not isolated, but very close to other buildings, from where mortars were fired almost every night. In June 2003, General Janis Karpinski became the commander. She was the first woman to be in charge of a prison in the war zone and had no previous experience in the field. For this reason and for the general dangerousness of the situation, she was often away. Therefore, Abu Ghraib lacked an authority figure able to constantly control and monitor soldiers’ conduct. In December 2003, she was admonished and suspended because of several reports stating that sadistic abuses against the prisoners had been perpetrated by the Military Police in the Tier 1A during the night shift. Consequent to the reports, eleven investigations into the events were carried out by major US governmental institutions. The final conclusions exposed several cases of sadistic abuses perpetrated by the soldiers between October and December 2003.

Among those reports, one of the most comprehensive was written by General Antonio Taguba (Zimbardo, 2007). The Taguba report revealed how the prisoners were subjugated by having phosphoric liquid or cold water poured on them, how they were beaten with chairs and brooms, threatened with rape, sodomized in different ways, and intimidated with working dogs. Perpetrators recorded their actions with photographs and videos, which were later discovered and thus could be used as evidence in the trials that followed.

The soldiers that were accused justified themselves by stating that the reason they engaged in those sadistic actions was the hope of eliciting confessions from the prisoners who, as already stated, were thought to be in possession of important information or to be leaders of the insurgency against the coalition forces (Hersh, 2004). However, the need to obtain a confession cannot be taken as the only explanation. Indeed, interrogations have always been used to obtain information, especially in the U.S system, but they have rarely culminated in cruel abuses. For this reason, there must be something else behind the soldiers’ behavior.

When trying to explain the reasons behind the soldiers’ actions at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment is useful in clarifying some of the dynamics that took place. On the other hand, Milgram’s experiment on obedience will not be used as an example because, as will later be explained, there was no strong authority figure that made soldiers obey to orders. However, the Stanford experiment alone is not enough to identify all the variables that played a role in the Abu Ghraib context. Other factors came into play and contributed in making the Abu Ghraib abuses an important example of the “banality of evil.”

What can explain the Abu Ghraib abuses? Lessons from the Stanford Prison experiment

Among the factors that played a pivotal role in the perpetration of abuses at Abu Ghraib are deindividuation and feeling of anonymity. Just like students who played the guards at Stanford often lost their sense of self-awareness as a consequence of being part of a group, soldiers at Abu Ghraib experienced this feeling of deindividuation in a more exacerbated way. They were encouraged to remain anonymous and not to reveal their identity or personal information to the inmates (Zimbardo, 2007). In this way, they felt less accountable for their behavior and were more likely to follow their impulses and, as a consequence, often perpetrate dehumanizing actions against the prisoners. The tendency to focus on the immediate satisfaction of one’s impulses without considering the consequences is known as the “Carnival Effect” (Zimbardo, 2007).

It is possible to argue that the prison environment in which the U.S soldiers were operating partly explains the perpetration of atrocities. As it occurred in the fake prison in Stanford, the Abu Ghraib prison worked as a sort of “institutionalization of evil,” where the soldiers ended up performing behaviors that they would never have performed in another situation. Specifically, at Abu Ghraib, soldiers were encouraged to use torture methods against the prisoners in order to obtain confessions. As Ken Davis, one the soldiers involved in the abuse, explained, they were encouraged by their superiors to use harsh methods and everything in their power in order to force Iraqi prisoners to confess (Zimbardo, 2007). The unhealthy prison environment was combined with a feeling of boredom that soldiers experienced during their shift. Boredom made them not completely lucid and more impulsive; they sought any kind of excitement that could change the boring course of their days (Bartone, 2010).

It is important to highlight that the great majority of the soldiers that performed the abuses did not show any sadistic or pathological disposition, as Zimbardo (2007) explains in his book, “The Lucifer Effect.” Some of them carried out the abuses as a consequence of social modeling processes, by observing others and noting the consequences of their behavior. Therefore, some soldiers probably followed the example of their colleagues as a result of peer pressure and ambiguous circumstances in which they were operating. This is the case of Chip Frederick, who was the sergeant at the head of the whole Tier A1. Indeed, the results of psychological evaluation performed on him revealed average psychological functioning, with no evidence of any psychopathological disposition that could have made him more likely to perform the abuses. Instead, as Zimbardo argues, Frederick was the epitome of the perfect soldier, who always carried out his job with passion and dedication (Zimbardo, 2007). Had Frederick found himself operating in a completely different environment, he would never have performed the abuses, just like the majority of the soldiers that were accused with him.

Soldiers working at Abu Ghraib had not been trained efficiently on the job they were going to perform. The Taguba report explains that soldiers were not prepared on how to deal with prisoners and on the techniques they were allowed to use during the interrogations. The report also points out that the leaders were unable to provide their soldiers with effective training after deployment. As the report states, “Soldiers were poorly prepared and untrained to conduct I/R (internment/resettlement) operations prior to deployment, at the mobilization site, upon arrival in theater, and throughout their mission” (Taguba, 2004, p. 24). Similarly, the students of the Stanford prison experiment were untrained to perform the role of the guards. However, while Stanford students were part of an experimental setting and were not supposed to be trained, what is shocking about the Abu Ghraib case is that soldiers that were expected to operate in a very controversial and dangerous situation lacked the proper psychological training to conduct their job in the best way possible. Probably, if they had been trained, the number of abuses would have been significantly lower.

In the Abu Ghraib context, what happened among the soldiers was a sort of diffusion of responsibility that took place as a consequence of the various situational factors involved in the abuse perpetration. Indeed, in the new reversed order of things in which the abuses were regarded as normal, there was no one contesting or admonishing the soldiers for their behavior. Everyone accepted the perpetration of actions that would have been inconceivable in a different environment. The question concerning the diffusion of responsibility is also connected to the so called “evil of inaction,” highlighted by Zimbardo. Indeed, other soldiers that were working during the night shift at Abu Ghraib thought that it was not their responsibility to intervene and stop the abuses because they expected someone else to do so at their place (Doris & Murphy, 2007). It is not difficult to connect this factor with the prison experiment at Stanford, where the diffusion of responsibility among the guards allowed them to behave cruelly towards their colleagues.

The factors that have just been analyzed can partly explain what happened at Abu Ghraib, but together with them, other elements played an important role and worsened the situation further.



Going beyond the Stanford Prison experiment

The prison of Abu Ghraib was not Stanford University, where before the experiment, students’ life was going on smoothly and without major problems. Soldiers working in the prison were operating in a completely different surrounding environment besides the prison building. They were in a war situation and were constantly threatened by possible attacks, bombs, and mortars (there were around 20 attacks every week [Zimbardo, 2007]). They lived far from their home country, in an environment which was geographically and culturally different from the one they came from and to which they were forced to adapt. With the passing of time, soldiers became used to the various dangers they were exposed to. However, they also became less clear-headed and were no longer able to lucidly think. Indeed, one of the soldiers, Joe Darby, explained that the constant fear that he and his command experienced during that period made them unable to think in a rational way (Zimbardo, 2007). Soldiers involved in the abuses were clearly psychologically exhausted because of the highly stressful situation in which they were working. As the Taguba report explains, “Difference in culture, soldiers’ quality of life, and the real presence of mortal danger over an extended time period, and the failure of commanders to recognize these pressures contributed to the pervasive atmosphere that existed at Abu Ghraib” (Taguba, 2004, p.43).

Paul Bartone (2010) identified several factors that might contribute to the perpetration of abuses during war time. Among them, boredom and feeling of danger have already been discussed. The ambiguity of the situation in which a strong leader figure is absent and there is confusion regarding who is in charge should not be underestimated in this context. Also, the lack of resources of the prison and the repetitive duties the soldiers had to accomplish made them more likely to engage in behaviors that could provide them with a sort of temporal excitement (Bartone, 2010).

Life in the prison was not easy for several reasons. Together with the psychological stressors, it is important not to discount the living conditions of the soldiers. Indeed, the prison lacked appropriate drainage and shower systems. Sometimes, they did not have running water or electricity and thus basic hygienic norms were not always respected, also because the prison was often overcrowded. The difficult living conditions, which probably soldiers were not used to, threatened their human dignity and probably made them more likely to commit the abuses in order to feel more powerful and boost their self-esteem. Moreover, it is important to highlight that the majority of the abuses took place during the soldiers’ night shift. The soldiers were probably deprived of sleep and as Doris and Murphy point out, “the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation on human functioning are known to include irritability, inattention, inability to concentrate, and excessive psychological responses to stress” (Doris & Murphy, 2007, p. 37).

According to Zimbardo, soldiers working during the night perceived themselves as less important compared to their colleagues that were assigned to the day shifts. For this reason, they might have engaged in the abuses in order to demonstrate that they were not at the bottom of the heap and had power and means to control others too (Zimbardo, 2007). It is not difficult to imagine that the precarious living conditions combined with sleep deprivation and feeling of powerlessness might have elicited strong emotional responses in the soldiers, which culminated in the abuse perpetration.

As already stated, the prison commander was General Janis Karpinski, who was the only woman in charge of a prison in the war zone. She was often absent from the prison, but even when she was there, the fact that she was a woman generated sexist behaviors in the soldiers, who did not regard her as a true authority figure. Therefore, they often disregarded her orders, which caused a general poor discipline in the prison. Indeed, even if soldiers were required to wear uniforms and behave in an appropriate manner, they neither respected the norms nor were admonished for not doing so. Poor discipline, combined with “laissez-faire leadership” (Bartone, 2010, p.164) and a chaotic situation in general, created an atmosphere of toleration towards the abuse perpetration.

Razack (2005) highlighted the huge role racism might have played in the abuse perpetration at Abu Ghraib. While racial differences were not significant at Stanford University, they are fundamental in order to understand what happened at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, racism was common among the soldiers, who considered the Iraqi prisoners different from them. Moreover, as a consequence of 9/11, a profound feeling of hostility towards Arab people in general developed among the soldiers, who wanted to avenge the death of their compatriots. Razack also points out that U.S soldiers wanted to establish their white supremacy over Iraqi prisoners, who were seen as inferior and uncivilized. “We in the West, with our superior values and morality, can help those in the non-West who are mysteriously still stuck in the pre-modern or dark ages,” ironically explains Razack (2005, p.138). The pictures taken by the U.S soldiers and the poses in which Iraqis were depicted (naked, one on top of the other with the American soldiers standing next to them [Zimbardo, 2007]) are a clear proof of the racial superiority that soldiers felt towards the prisoners. It is not the first time that feeling of racial superiority is used to justify the perpetration of atrocities; also Nazi soldiers during World War II documented their actions against the Jews with pictures and videos in order to show how they were able to control and subjugate human beings that were openly defined as inferior (Razack, 2005).

While racist feelings may be relevant in partly explaining the reasons behind US soldiers’ abuses against the Iraqi prisoners, they should be interpreted in the larger context of categorization processes. These processes explain how discriminatory behavior may arise simply from in-group/out-group categorization. Psychologist Henri Tajfel analyzed the dynamics of in-group and out-group formation and the consequent feeling of membership that might lead to discrimination of people that are not part of the same group. According to Tajfel’s “social identity theory,” during the categorization process, individuals create a “web of social affiliations,” which are defined as groups of people or things brought together by common characteristics, interests, and social standards. (Tajfel, 1970, p. 98). In doing so, people are motivated to simplify categorization and avoid too much overlapping among already existing groups. In the specific case of Abu Ghraib, the “web of social affiliations” of the soldiers already existed before their arrival at Abu Ghraib: they were the people in charge of the prison and the Iraqis were the prisoners. There was no overlapping between the two already existing groups and, as already stated,  soldiers were not encouraged to have any  type of personal or affective contact with the prisoners: the two groups had to remain separated.

Once categorization processes have taken place, already existing norms of behavior towards out-groups might reinforce discriminatory behaviors, especially in cases in which a particular form of intergroup categorization appears to be logic and relevant. At Abu Ghraib and during the Iraq war in general, for example, US soldiers had been exposed to multiple forms of discrimination against the Iraqis: they were in the middle of a war that was justified by the need to bring Western values and civilization to people that were thought be uncivilized and in need of help. Moreover, after 9/11, a common feeling of hostility towards Arab people spread all across the US and soldiers at Abu Ghraib had probably been influenced by it.

As it is easy to understand from what has been discussed earlier, discriminatory behavior is not always related to individuals’ own interests but it might manifest also in people that never showed discriminatory behaviors towards a particular out-group before. As Tajfel explains, the norm of out-group behavior “determines behavior- as other social norms do- when an individual finds himself in a situation to which, in his view, the norm applies” and prevents the individual from having a “more reasonable conduct” (Tajfel, 1970, p. 102).

In group and out-group formation are very easy to induce. During one of his experiments, Tajfel showed that it is enough to randomly assign people to one group instead of another to elicit behaviors that favor in-group as oppose to out-group people (Tajfel, 1970). It is easy to understand how at Abu Ghraib, where there were pre-defined and clear differences between US soldiers and Iraqi prisoners, discriminatory norms of out-group behavior might have played a role in the abuse perpetration. Specifically, it might have been easier for US soldiers to side with their own compatriots than with the Iraqi prisoners. US soldiers shared common language, culture, and social status in the war context; all these elements distanced them from the prisoners, who were from a different country, spoke a different language and were in a different, subordinated social position. Therefore, it became simpler to categorize Iraqi as the out-group and carry out discriminatory and abusive behaviors instead of questioning the brutality of the actions perpetrated.


Trying to explain the situational factors that led American soldiers at Abu Ghraib to behave cruelly against the prisoners is a difficult task. Of course, it is easy to attribute such behaviors to “some bad apples” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 467), but reality is much more complex. There are a series of situational factors that should not be discounted during the analysis of this kind of situation.

Philip Zimbardo identified some of the variables that might contribute in the transformation of average people in cruel torturers. During his experiment at Stanford University, he highlighted the important role of deindividuation, feeling of anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and lack of training as contributing factors. However, when analyzing what happened at Abu Ghraib, it is soon clear that several other factors played a role and made the situation even more complex. The war situation, combined with an unhealthy environment and lack of a strong authority figure, created complex social dynamics among people living in the prison that culminated in the abuse perpetration. Finally, the norms of out-group behavior, analyzed by Henri Tajfel, played a pivotal role at Abu Ghraib and were one of the main reasons why U.S soldiers engaged in morally deplorable behaviors that they probably would have never performed in another situation.

Considering the difficulty in isolating the single factors that might be behind the transformation of average people into cruel torturers, it can be useful to analyze another case study. For this reason, the following chapter will deal with another serious case of abuse, which was perpetrated by the UN Peacekeepers against Bosnian women in the late 1990s. The chapter will try to find elements in common with the previous case study and other elements that might have more explanatory power.


4.    Bosnia Herzegovina

the whistleblower

During the first half of the 1990s, Bosnia Herzegovina was ravaged by a civil war that lasted three years and involved the three major ethnic groups of the country fighting one another: Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. The war left the country extremely weak: there was need to establish a stable government able to deal with ethnic divisions and find a social cohesion among different groups. For this reason, the U.N decided to send peacekeeping troops to Bosnia in 1995 to provide humanitarian aid and facilitate the peace-building process. The U.N Mission in Bosnia, commonly called UNMIBH, was composed of an United Nations International Police Task Force (UNIPTF), a human rights office, a civil affairs unit, a Mine Action Center in charge of cleaning mines in the territory, and a division in charge of monitoring the Bosnian judicial system (Murray, 2003). All these offices were supposed to work together with the local police in order to reestablish order and peace, and offer training and support to the population.

When the UN mission started, Bosnia had been weakened by the three-year war, and chaos had spread among the surviving part of the population. Between 90,000 and 300,000 people had been killed either by the armed conflict or by the “ethnic cleansing” that was carried out by the Croat and Serb forces. There was a need to restore order and a climate that could favor peaceful new elections. For this reason, the main duties of the UN peacekeeping forces were support of the already existing parties in the restoration of a peaceful environment, training and inspections of police and judicial apparatus, monitoring the respect of human rights, and investigation of any instance of human rights violations by the local police or justice officers. Moreover, the United Nations Mine Action Center (UNMAC) had the duty to clear one million mines that had been place in the territory during the war (UNMIBH).

In conjunction with the beginning of the UN mission, sexual trafficking proliferated throughout the country. As Murray (2003) explains, women from Eastern Europe were brought to Bosnia with false promises of jobs as nannies and waitresses. Instead, they ended up working in brothels that looked like bars and nightclubs, and had appealing international names like “Liberty Restaurant” or “Malibu Club” (Muftic, 2014, p. 227). It is estimated that in the late 1990s there were between 600 and 3,000 trafficked women in Bosnia “at any given time” (Muftic, 2014, p. 227). Paradoxically, the demand for these women increased in the areas where international peacekeeping forces, aid workers, and police officers were present. Evidence reveals that U.N peacekeepers were directly involved in the trafficking processes and helped criminal organizations in smuggling girls and women to Bosnia from Eastern Europe (Murray, 2003). In her article, Murray provides testimonies of people working for the UN mission that witnessed their colleagues and supervisors buying and selling women for their personal benefits and openly talking about the ages and physical characteristics of women they bought. Moreover, she reports that some American officers were accused of running the brothels in which women were exploited (Murray, 2003).

It might be difficult to believe that soldiers sent to Bosnia to support peace and stability and investigate any instance of human rights violations ended up becoming perpetrators of atrocities against the people they were supposed to protect. However, the case of Bosnia Herzegovina is not an isolated example of peacekeepers’ misconduct. There have been reports of international troops involved in human trafficking and crimes when they were abroad for their missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Somalia, and many other countries (Allred, 2009).

This chapter will take into consideration the situational factors that might have contributed to the perpetration of these actions among the peacekeeping soldiers, focusing in particular with the events of Bosnia Herzegovina. Before starting the analysis, it is worth to point out that while for the Abu Ghraib case an easy parallel could be made with the Stanford prison experiment, for this second case study, there is no literature directly connecting the case study with the two experiments that have been analyzed or with Hannah Arendt’s theory. However, the analysis of this second case study suggests that a lot of elements that were isolated by Zimbardo and that played a role at Abu Ghraib can be found also in Bosnia Herzegovina. For example, lack of training, war and post-war environment, categorization processes are all elements that were present at Abu Ghraib and that can be found also in Bosnia, even if they manifested in a different way and under different circumstances. In addition, another element comes into play: the level of immunity that peacekeepers benefitted and made them less accountable for their actions and more prone towards abuse perpetration.

What can explain the Bosnia Herzegovina abuses? Lesson from the Stanford Prison experiment

Just like for the Abu Ghraib case, Milgram’s experiment is not useful to explain what happened in Bosnia Herzegovina. In fact, peacekeepers did not obey any order and were not pressured by any strong authority figure. For this reason, the chapter will take into consideration only Zimbardo’s experiment at Stanford University and the variables he isolated in relation with the new ones that played a role in Bosnia.

Soldiers who were sent to Bosnia Herzegovina in the late 1990s lacked the proper training on how to deal with issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Just like the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, peacekeeping forces were not properly trained before being sent to their missions. As Lisa Muftic (2014) explains, the lack of training can lead to the perpetration of abuses because “one of the main impediments to the enforcement of existing human trafficking laws is the lack of understanding and awareness of the crime by first responders such as the police” (Muftic, 2014, p. 226). Indeed, peacekeepers seemed to lack the appropriate understanding of what human trafficking is and what consequences the victims might face. Only in 2005 was training aimed at preventing sexual exploitation mandatorily introduced among peacekeepers by the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit (Allais, 2011). This type of training was based on the principle that in order to change people’s behavior it is necessary to change their attitudes, in this case attitudes towards sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Therefore, by educating peacekeepers on what sexual exploitation is, what its consequences are, and how to prevent it, it might be possible to avoid abuse perpetrations (Allais, 2011). Unfortunately, this type of training was introduced when several abuses had already been taken place, not only in Bosnia, but also in Somalia, Cambodia, Eritrea, and several other countries.

The environment in which peacekeepers operated during their mission in Bosnia Herzegovina allowed the perpetration of abuses. Specifically, evidence reveals that there was a significant number of soldiers involved in the exploitation of women (Allred, 2009). Therefore, behaviors that in another context would have regarded as unconceivable came to be seen as “normal.” Carol Harrington (2005) argues that what happened among the peacekeepers was a normalization of procedures: even if they were aware of their wrongdoings, in the context in which they were operating, peacekeepers did not see their actions as human rights violation or as something bad (Harrington, 2005). The environment in which peacekeepers perpetrated the abuses was a consequence of the “breakdown of law and order, socio-economic infrastructure and socio-cultural norms in post-conflict societies where the natural checks and balances that would otherwise contain and manage potential negative effects are absent” (Allais, 2011, p.3). The “reversed order of things,” as it was called in the previous chapters, which allowed the perpetration of abuses at Stanford University and Abu Ghraib, played a pivotal role also in Bosnia Herzegovina and fostered an environment in which crimes and their perpetrators were not properly punished.

Peacekeepers operated in a situation in which there were significant differences between them and the local population. This clear division, just like at Abu Ghraib and Stanford, allowed them to create a strong sense of membership and to look at the others as different. Henri Tajfel’s (1970) social identity theory and norms of out-group behavior, highlighted also in the previous chapter, can partly explain the attitudes of U.N Peacekeepers against women exploited in brothels. Indeed, just like for US soldiers and Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, there was a strict division between U.N Peacekeepers and women exploited in brothels. Peacekeepers were powerful and had a high social status, while trafficked women lacked any kind of legal protection; they had entered Bosnia illegally and lacked the proper documents, which were kept by their traffickers, to make them identifiable. They were completely at the mercy of their traffickers if they wanted to have a chance of survival or eventually being freed. The different status peacekeepers and women had in those circumstances contributed to the clear separation between in-group and out-group members.

As it was explained by Tajfel (1970), norms of out-group behavior can easily lead to discrimination of people that are not part of the in-group. Carol Allais (2011) points out that peacekeepers’ identity was formed around their sense of membership and those who were excluded from their group were automatically seen as less worthy. At this point, it was easier to feel detached from the women that were forced to work in brothels and to exploit them. Indeed, one of the main causes of exploitation is precisely the division between in and out groups. While in-group members are reserved a special treatment, people in the out-group are treated with indifference or in a worse way, according to the circumstances (Hodson, 2013).

Categorization processes and norms of in and out group behaviors are closely connected to the element of deindividuation that Zimbardo examined during the Stanford Prison experiment. In particular, perception of in and out group separation and feeling of belonging to a strong influential group caused peacekeepers’ loss of their sense of self-awareness and accountability. In this way, just like it happened with the guards at Stanford, it became easier to carry out abusive and dehumanizing behaviors against trafficked women.

It is important to mention that what happened in brothels in Bosnia is not an isolated episode of sexual exploitation of men against women. This type of behavior can be traced back to ancient issues of patriarchy and male domination over women. The purpose of this thesis does not allow a comprehensive analysis of this complex phenomenon, but a small reference is needed for a clear understanding of the events in Bosnia. According to Albee (1998), sexual exploitation of women is not connected to the sexual act itself, but is an act of power. Specifically, through the sexual act, peacekeepers were able to feel powerful and in control of their lives, especially in their situation: they were in a foreign country, which was full of internal tensions because of the war that had just ended. Moreover, some of them were in charge of the removal of mines and had to deal with the dangerousness of the task itself. It could be argued that the sexual acts served to boost their self-esteem and to make them feel in control of the precarious situation they were in.

Issues of sexual exploitation in Bosnia were made public thanks to the efforts of Kathryn Bolkovac (Slanjankic, 2016), a US employee of DynCorp, the private military agency that recruited American soldiers and sent them to U.N missions. Bolkovac discovered peacekeepers’ abuses of women in brothels while she was on mission in Bosnia in the late 1990s and decided to denounce them, even if high-level U.N officials, like the head of the U.N mission in Bosnia, Jacques Klein, encouraged her not to reveal anything (Slanjankic, 2016). As a consequence of her report, she was removed from the mission and repatriated (Murray, 2003). The main reason why whistleblowers like Bolkovac were dismissed was that they might have harmed the U.N reputation and compromised its missions worldwide (Allred, 2009). Just like Bolkovac, other officers that were not involved in the abuse perpetrations knew that their colleagues spent time in brothels where victims of human trafficking were exploited, but refused to denounce them. This might be connected to what Zimbardo called “evil of inaction.” Indeed, in order to protect themselves and the U.N reputation, numerous U.N officers turned a blind eye to serious human rights violations that were taking place right in front of them.

Going beyond the Stanford Prison experiment

Together with old factors that have just been analyzed and that played a role also at Stanford University and Abu Ghraib, others came into place in Bosnia Herzegovina and are important to take into consideration.

As already stated, peacekeepers operated in a very chaotic environment. War had just ended, a lot of people were dead, and others were desperate and in need of help. Peacekeepers were for the most part very far from their home country, in a completely different environment, in which they could not understand the language or properly communicate with the locals. Moreover, they were daily exposed to dead or wounded adults and children, had to help in removing the dead bodies, and were often isolated and bored (Wessely, 2006). Just like at Abu Ghraib (but not at Stanford), the post-war environment, the highly stressful situation compounded by boredom might have contributed to the perpetration of abuses. Indeed, peacekeepers might have experienced a feeling of powerlessness connected to the duties they had to accomplish. Therefore, in order to boost their self-esteem and find a way to escape the situation of uncertainty in which they lived, they ended up exploiting women in brothels without taking into consideration the consequences of their actions.

What highly contributed to the abuse perpetration in Bosnia and in other countries where peacekeeping forces were present was the immunity that protected them from prosecution by local authorities (Allred, 2009). Indeed, peacekeepers cannot be jailed or sanctioned for their misconduct while they are abroad. Moreover, the U.N has no disciplinary authority over peacekeepers that are hired by private agencies. Soldiers that are on loan from troop-contributing countries (TCCs) can be prosecuted only by their country of origin and under their national laws (Allais, 2011).  What the U.N generally does is to create an agreement with the host country, which agrees to waive any jurisdiction over peacekeepers’ misconduct and violation of the host country laws. With multiple agencies hiring the U.N missions’ personnel, it becomes difficult to understand who will punish offenders and under which circumstances they can be prosecuted. TCCs are often reluctant to punish their soldiers’ wrongdoings. The U.N, on the other hand, recently tried to implement a zero-tolerance policy towards this type of offenses. However, unfortunately, the organization still struggles to persuade its members to investigate and take actions against abuse perpetration (Allais, 2011). In Bosnia, the only measure that was taken against peacekeepers who misbehaved was repatriation; no legal sanction was taken against them by their home country (Allred, 2009). It is easy to understand how the factor of immunity highly contributed to the perpetration of abuses in Bosnia: peacekeepers could do whatever they wanted without fear of being sanctioned or jailed for their misconduct. Indeed, in absence of law or legal sanctions, people tend to rely on their own moral standards of behaviors, which can easily be distorted by the situation. In this case, the situation in Bosnia was highly permissive towards abuse perpetration: a lot of people were involved and norms of in/out group behaviors facilitated the detachment from the victims. On the other hand, fear of punishment, combined with certainty and severity of punishment, is a strong crime deterrent. It is easy to understand that peacekeepers profited of their level of immunity in order to carry out behaviors that under different circumstances they would have not performed also because of fear of repercussions (Dilulio, 2010).

While at Abu Ghraib the discrimination of Iraqi prisoners took a racist connotations, in Bosnia it was based on gender. Together with immunity that allowed peacekeepers to carry out the abuses without major repercussions, the identity of the victims played a role. Indeed, people that offered their services in brothels were trafficked women with a lower economic status than their “clients.” The social relations among peacekeepers and victims were shaped by a hyper-masculine environment in which male perpetrators dominated over female victims (Harrington, 2005). As Harrington states, “peacekeepers are above the law, while women and girls in the sex industry are automatically guilty before it” (Harrington, 2005, p. 181). Moreover, it was common for peacekeepers –who were mostly men- to engage in sexist and misogynist discourses that in some cases culminated in the abuse perpetration. The availability of brothels, combined with the very masculine environment, the level of impunity peacekeepers benefitted and the already discussed norms of in-out group categorization, made the abuses more likely to take place (Harrington, 2005).

It is important to point out that peacekeepers had different attitudes towards women working in brothels. On one hand, there were peacekeepers who highly contributed to the illegal entry of foreign women into Bosnia and exploited them even if they were aware of their condition. On the other hand, there were peacekeepers who benefitted of the sexual services offered in brothels without being aware that women working in the nightclubs were smuggled into Bosnia with false promises (Allred, 2009). Allred (2009) argues that numerous peacekeepers were away from home and willing to obtain sexual services from women that they did not know were trafficked. As already stated, the lack of training on the issue of sexual trafficking might have contributed to their unawareness of the conditions under which those women were forced to work (Allred, 2009).


One of the main causes of peacekeepers’ misconduct was the level of immunity that they benefitted while they were on mission and that made them less accountable for their actions. Just like at Abu Ghraib, the highly chaotic environment and stressful situation in which peacekeepers were operating played a role too in the abuse perpetration. Moreover, categorization processes contributed to the division between peacekeepers and women in brothels; in particular, women were perceived as being part of the out-group and therefore it became easier to detach from them and display abusive behaviors.

It is important to highlight that while at Abu Ghraib the abuses were limited to one single prison, in Bosnia there were numerous brothels where peacekeepers could obtain sexual services. The widespread nature of the phenomenon, combined with all the other factors that have been discussed, made the perpetrators less accountable and more likely to perform actions that in their home countries would have seemed inconceivable.

It is not easy to isolate all the factors that might have contributed to the perpetration of atrocities at Abu Ghraib and in Bosnia and, more in general, what there is behind the transformation of average people into abuse perpetrators. The two previous chapters have tried to isolate the variables that seemed to have contributed the most to the exploitation of people in Iraq and Bosnia. What the final and conclusive chapter will try to do is to connect the variables that have been identified to Arendt’s theory on the banality of evil and give a more practical definition of what “banal evil” is.


5.    Conclusion

This thesis has tried to analyze how Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil can be applied to recent cases of serious violations of human rights. In order to do so, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram’s experiment on obedience have been taken into consideration. In particular, the factors analyzed by Milgram and Zimbardo have been isolated, discussed, and later applied to the two case studies.

In chapter one, I tried to highlight the main factors that the two scholars identified as main contributors to the perpetration of atrocities. What emerged from Milgram’s experiments was that the main factor that might lead people to commit cruel actions is obedience. In particular, he examined how different circumstances might elicit different levels of obedience. For example, he noticed that an authority figure that is perceived to be legitimate can lead to an increase in the participants’ obedience rate, while the victims’ proximity decreases the levels of compliance to the instructions received. To be more precise, when the victim was in the same room as the participants, this might have caused a feeling of shame and guilt that decreased obedience rates. On the other hand, when the victim was in another room, participants felt morally detached and were more likely to go along until the last level of shock, especially when the authority figure was close to them.

Milgram highlighted that under certain conditions, for example when an authority figure is present, people can commit cruel actions that normally they would not perform. In his book, “Obedience to authority,” he highlighted how ordinary people, by simply performing their job, can end up committing morally deplorable actions (Milgram, 1974). In particular, Milgram’s results are useful in explaining the reasons behind behaviors of people like Adolf Eichmann in Nazi Germany. Indeed, Eichmann was obeying to the orders received from his superiors and was part of a complex bureaucratic system that allowed him to be both physically and morally detached from his victims.

Milgram underlined also that the power of the situation in which people are acting can lead them to perform atrocities. In particular, situations where the normal order of things is reversed can highly contribute to the display of certain behaviors, like it happened in Nazi Germany. The power of situation was highlighted also by Philip Zimbardo in his social psychology experiment at Stanford University. With this experiment, Zimbardo was able to isolate other important variables that might contribute to the transformation of average people into abuse perpetrators.

Zimbardo found that elements like deindividuation and feeling of anonymity can highly contribute to the display of morally questionable acts. Indeed, being part of a strong influential group in which it is difficult to be identified contributes to the perpetration of cruel behaviors. Moreover, the fake prison environment in which the experiment was carried out played a role too. Indeed, the prison worked as a sort of institutionalization of evil, where perpetrators were not punished for the actions they committed. Finally, the so-called evil of inaction (knowing the existence of certain behaviors, actions, or situations, but not denouncing them) is another important element: it reinforces the perpetration of cruel actions without punishing the offenders.

During the analysis of the two case studies, I noticed that Milgram’s experiment did not apply to either cases. Neither at Abu Ghraib nor in Bosnia Herzegovina was there a strong authority figure that forced military personnel to perform certain actions. What, instead, seemed to have played a pivotal role was the situation itself that for several reasons favored the perpetration of abuses. To be more specific, both the abuses at Abu Ghraib and in Bosnia Herzegovina were carried out in a war or post-war environment by people that were not from the country in which they were operating and that were not accountable for the actions they performed. At Abu Ghraib, just like at Stanford, US soldiers were encouraged not to reveal their identity or personal information to the inmates, which obviously made them not recognizable. A similar trend can be noticed among UN Peacekeepers in Bosnia Herzegovina: they benefitted from immunity that allowed them to perpetrate abuses in brothels without fear of being prosecuted.

As already stated, another similarity between the Abu Ghraib and the Bosnia case is the war environment in which the abuses were performed. Indeed, both US soldiers and UN peacekeepers were working in foreign countries that had been weakened by war; they were extremely stressed due to the duties they had to perform and for the dangerousness of the places in which they had been sent. All these elements combined might have contributed to the display of cruel behaviors.

The war environment itself is not enough to explain the transformation of all these people into cruel abusers. Additional elements that should be taken into consideration are the categorization processes that led to the formation of in and out groups. The division between in and out groups triggered the display of discriminatory behaviors against out-group members, who had a lower social status than members of the in-group. Categorization processes happened in Nazi Germany, where Jews, Roma people, and sexual minorities were discriminated against and where a huge apparatus was created to get rid of them. Also at Stanford university it is possible to find a strong in-group (the guards) and a weak out-group (the prisoners), which was completely subjugated and was not given the material means to rebel and overturn the situation. The same happened at Abu Ghraib, where the US soldiers exercised their power over the prisoners that had no means to defend themselves. Finally, the out-group in Bosnia was composed of women trafficked from foreign countries who did not have access to their documents, which were kept by their traffickers, and had no means to escape from their situation, except the hope to be freed one day if they kept on working. Their illegal status in Bosnia, combined with their lack of social networks, was essential in creating their situation of powerlessness; at that point, U.N personnel, by taking advantage of their higher social status, reinforced by immunity, profited of this power differential, which led to exploitation.

One final element that should not be discounted is the “evil of inaction.” Indeed, in the situations analyzed, it is possible to notice that there is always a group of people that knows that human rights violations are taking place but does not denounce or report them. This generally happens because of fear of repercussions or simply because people tend to believe that someone else will take care of a particular problem even if they do not do anything. As already stated in the previous chapters, “evil of inaction” happened in Nazi Germany, at Abu Ghraib (among nurses and psychologists working in the prison), and in Bosnia (among the other U.N members who knew the abuses, but never spoke about them). When whistleblowers are punished and perpetrators are “protected,” there is no fear of punishment that works as a crime deterrent and prevents the display of certain behaviors.

The analysis of the social psychology experiments and of the two case studies highlighted how the concept of the banality of evil can still be applied to today’s human rights violations, but in a different way. Indeed, what Arendt always pointed out when referring to Eichmann was the extent to which the Nazi Colonel was following the orders received by his superiors. Today, instead, the element of obedience does not seem to be pivotal in abuse perpetration. What, instead, plays an important role are the categorization processes that allow the creation of two distinctive groups and to the display of discriminatory behaviors against who is not part of the in-group. Moreover, lack of accountability- which might be due to feeling of anonymity or to other factors, like immunity- and deindividuation- loss of own sense of self-awareness as a consequence of being part of a strong influential group- are two other important elements too. Finally, if the large number of people that know the abuses, but do not denounce them is added to the list, it is possible to obtain the right combination of situational factors that could lead to what Arendt called the banality of evil.

Understanding the causes of the transformation of average people in abuse perpetrators does not work as a justification for the crimes committed. It is important to point out that despite the situational factors that might lead to the display of certain behaviors, the element of individual responsibility is not discredited in this analysis. What this thesis wanted to highlight is the difference between people who have an internal disposition towards the perpetration of certain actions and people who become abusive because of the situational factors that have been analyzed. Therefore, when punishing people for the crimes committed there should be an equal focus on the micro and macro levels of analysis. Individual actions should always be punished, but at the same time a detailed analysis of the context in which those actions have taken place is useful to understand the elements that, combined together, create an environment in which crimes are more likely to happen. Understanding those elements is important in order to avoid, to the best extent possible, the perpetration of banal evil.



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