May 13 - As details of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib became known, not everyone was shocked. A caller on Rush Limbaugh’s show likened the torture of prisoners to “a college fraternity prank.” The host picked up on the cue and started riffing. “Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.”
During the Senate investigation into the abuse, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma opined that “I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment." Meanwhile every day at least a handful of NEWSWEEK readers write in to say that they are tired of images of the abuse or to say that they don’t want to see photographs of coffins bearing the remains of U.S. soldiers.
What’s going on here? Is it unpatriotic to question the behavior of American soldiers, to publish photos of their caskets? Or is there a sort of willful denial at play here? Michael Milburn believes the latter is the case. Milburn, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts and coauthor of “The Politics of Denial” (MIT Press), has extensively explored what determines political attitudes, the role of emotion in public opinion and the effects of the mass media on political attitudes and social behavior. He recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker about political denial—what it is, what causes it and when, if ever, it can be a positive thing. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What are the politics of denial?
Michael Milburn: We found that, particularly for males who had never had any psychotherapy, when they reported a high level of childhood punishment, they were significantly more likely to endorse a range of punitive public policies like support for the death penalty, opposition to abortion, support for the use of military force. We used a notion of therapy as a general indicator of denial or lack of denial. Well, the extent to which emotion connected to childhood punishment was driving their political attitudes, when they had an opportunity to sort of reflect on that and [have a] short-term catharsis experience, that sort of energy disappears.
So are you saying that [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld could use a little therapy?
[Laughs] Well, bottom line, yes. What we have found, really broadly, is the higher level of punitiveness among political conservatives is really strongly associated with experiences, generally, of harsh punishment from childhood. It’s not just going to be that they were spanked; there’s a whole family climate, and punishment is just going to be one of those indicators of that. We have a whole chapter on the religious right. In our research we also found that when we gave people the statement “the amount of physical and sexual abuse in this country is greatly exaggerated by the mass media,” conservatives were significantly more likely to agree with that.
That echoes the Inhofe comment that he was more “outraged by the outrage.” I think it has a lot of direct relevance for seeing what’s going on in the reaction to these Iraqi prison [photos]. You know, Rush Limbaugh calling it a fraternity prank. You have Trent Lott yesterday [saying] that these are all exaggerated.
Is that a form of denial, though, or is that spin and interpretation?
Oh, absolutely. There’s outright denial, but it’s more subtle form is just minimization. There is a difficulty sometimes in being able to separate with public figures how much is actual denial in terms of their own belief and how much of it is political motivation in terms of spinning it and trying to alter people’s perceptions. I can’t say anything definitively that Rumsfeld is in denial or these guys are all in denial. We get a lot of reader mail telling us to stop showing photos of the prison abuses and that they don’t want to see pictures of coffins coming home. Is that another form of denial on the part of the public?
I would think absolutely. It’s important to note that there is a positive dimension to denial. Denial is a defense mechanism that typically develops in childhood as a method of survival, of denying powerful, unpleasant emotions. The problem is a lot of people learn this as a way of dealing with life. The coffins and the pictures of abuse are sickening, disgusting, so there are some real powerful emotions there that people want to avoid. But I think also there’s an issue of loss going on. There’s a really powerful political myth about the United States; we’re the land of the free, the home of the brave. We go out with honor to bring freedom to Iraq, and so on. These kinds of photographs really threaten the validity of that myth. That’s a real loss.
Whether or not that myth is true or whether Abu Ghraib is an anomaly, people never like having their assumptions challenged.
Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of [people saying] “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” You saw that with Gen. [Richard] Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs, he got this report in January, and he never read it. Rumsfeld had the report, and he didn’t read it. It’s like, psychologically, “If I don’t read it, maybe it will go away.” The parallels to the [Roman] Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal are [right there]. Again, it’s protecting the institution, throwing up a few underlings but protecting the chain of command, which is obviously what the Catholic church did, big time.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am guessing you lean politically a little more to the left?
Yeah, I’d probably have to say that. I have voted for Republicans, however.
Just not Republicans you felt were in denial?
[Laughs] Well, not always. Politics is always a matter of choice.
What about the Democrats, though, they lean more toward the social welfare side of things, bigger government, with a few notable exceptions.
Well, you have to be careful about that too because the biggest spenders in the last 20 years have been Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, compared to Bill Clinton. But it’s a matter of priorities. Is it going to be education and health care or is it going to be tax cuts for the rich and the military?
What do those two sets of priorities say about their political psychologies?
[Psychologist] Sylvan Tompkins speculated that when people move into adulthood, they are attracted to political ideologies whose emotional basis is consistent with the emotional script that they grew up with. That’s a really general process, and you can see that in terms of the religions that people are attracted to as well as the political ideology—you know in Christianity, people will find in the Bible teachings that resonate with their particular emotional experience. Is it hellfire and damnation or is it the uplifting qualities that Jesus talked about? The attitudes that we found associated with these childhood punishment experiences were attitudes with a large symbolic component of power and toughness and retribution. You see that in Inhofe, who’s talking about “Hey, these guys are guys with blood on their hands; they’re not in there for traffic violations”—of course disregarding the Red Cross report that 70 to 90 percent of the people were picked up by mistake.
What does Bush’s upbringing and conservativism tell you about the way he sees the world? Bush is really fascinating. There was a televised interview with Barbara Bush during the  campaign. She was talking about her son and relating this one incident where he had come home drunk and his father was walking out to talk to him. W was saying, “OK Dad, right now, let’s do it.” Clearly there’s a tremendous amount of anger there. Not that this explains everything that’s going on, but it’s clearly, to me, a factor in his I’m-gonna-get-the-guy-who-threatened-my-dad-but-I’m-also-going-to-show-my-dad-that- I-can-do-stuff-that-he-couldn’t-do [attitude]. How do you explain the behavior and the psychology of the soldiers who committed the Abu Ghraib abuses? They almost seem to be enjoying themselves.
It’s the process of what’s called “moral exclusion.” This is a process that happens in wartime a lot where you dehumanize your enemy. Phillip Zimbardo ran the Stanford prison study back in 1971 where he set up a simulation of a prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. He randomly recruited 18 people—nine guards and nine prisoners—and randomly assigned them to be either guards or prisoners. He was going to run his experiment for two weeks. He had to abandon it after six days. The guys who were guards ended up really sadistically humiliating and abusing the prisoners, locking them in a closet for hours and hours in solitary confinement, having them clean toilets with their bare hands. The prisoners became demoralized and went along with this. It became an actual prison. The guards were having the prisoners simulate sodomy with each other.
Can you relate that to Abu Ghraib?
The role of a prison guard really dehumanizes the people who occupy it and comes with it the ultimate aphrodisiac of power. There’s no coincidence that a lot of the abuse becomes sexualized. There has always been a fusion of sexuality and power—it’s a way of getting off; it’s a high to exercise that power.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
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