How Cowardice and Heroism, Cruelty and Kindness can Coexist Within a Species – Paul Okami

Freeze Frame: excerpted from Chapter 1: Psychology As Science in Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives by Paul Okami

On December 26, 2004, the single most horrific natural disaster the world had seen in over 40 years occurred in Southeast Asia: a particularly destructive tsunami (the Japanese term to describe the long, high-volume ocean waves that may follow an earthquake). The tsunami claimed the lives of at least one-quarter million citizens of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and India. In addition to the incomprehensible tragedy emerging from news reports of this disaster were reports such as the following:

  • A unnamed British man on holiday in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit spent three days helping to bury the dead, and then emptied his entire bank account to help the survivors. He continued to drive back and forth to the east coast of the island, eight hours in each direction, to ferry water and food to survivors (Hall, 2005).
  • An Indonesian bank president, whose family had barely survived the catastrophe, opened the doors to his home to over 230 people, including 60 children. He told them all: “You are my family now. This is your home. Stay as long as you like.” (“New heroes, new hope,” 2005).
  • In Galle, Sri Lanka, Dr. Ruvan Samarasinghe had just delivered new mother Rohini De Silva’s baby girl by cesarean section and was preparing to sew up the incision when the first wave hit the lower floors of the hospital, flooding the corridors. The lights went out in the operating room. De Silva, numbed from pain killers but still conscious, begged the doctor to save her baby. Dr. Samarasinghe’s own wife and infant son were in the staff quarters situated on a lower floor of the hospital, now threatened with flooding. Dr. Samarasinghe did not flee to be with his own family. For 20 minutes in complete darkness he stitched up the incisions in De Silva’s abdomen until both mother and infant could be moved to a nearby temple, from which they were then taken by ambulance to a hospital outside of Galle. Both mother and infant survived—as did Samarasinghe and his family (“New heroes, new hope,” 2005).

Stories such as these are pleasurable to read—they confirm our faith in our own humanity. However, in the same year, 2004, the world was also mesmerized by the story of Abu Ghraib prison, situated 20 miles from Baghdad, Iraq. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib was among the most infamous prison complexes in the entire world. Horrendous tortures, executions, and repulsive living conditions greeted tens of thousands of male and female inmates, crammed together into 12’ x 12’ cells that were little more than pits (Hersh, 2004). Following the fall of Baghdad to U. S. occupying forces, Abu Ghraib was converted to a U. S. military prison where, presumably, the gruesome ghosts of the past would be put to rest.

However, in July, 2004, it was found that “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” were taking place at the prison in Tier 1A during the night shift (Taguba, quoted in Hersh, 2004). There were detailed witness accounts. And then there were the photographs. The world looked on in horror as images depicting shocking abuses and their consequences were released and appeared in print and broadcast media everywhere. Prisoners had been kept unclothed and hooded. They had been tortured with glass and liquid from broken chemical lights, tormented by guard dogs, and sexually humiliated and assaulted in a dozen ways. They had been compelled to denounce Allah, had wounds inflicted upon them and then had the wounds stitched up by non-qualified personnel, endured electric shocks to their genitals…and more.

The photograph of a smiling American soldier named Sabrina Harman giving the “thumbs up” sign over the dead body of an Iraqi inmate at Abu Gharib was one of the disturbing images widely distributed by the media. There were many of these photographs—images of America’s best, jauntily smiling over a series of woeful human catastrophes. Looking at these images, a person has to wonder: How did a soldier like Sabrina Harman arrive at a place where she was capable of posing for such a photograph? The guards at Abu Ghraib appeared to be normal American soldiers in a time of war.

So what happened?

The case of Sabrina Harmon in particular is controversial, as extensive investigation and interviews—even analysis of the infamous smile itself by psychologists—have raised the possibility that the photographs taken by this particular soldier may have been intended to document and expose the wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib rather than revel in them (Gourevitch & Morris, 2008; Morris, 2008). Nonetheless, at the very least Harmon allowed the abuses to occur and failed to take steps to stop them.

Consider now the stories of Southeast Asian tsunami and Abu Ghraib disasters—for although Abu Ghraib is certainly a small-scale disaster, it is a disaster nonetheless. In comparing the stories of tsunami heroes and Abu Ghraib torturers, you might well be tempted to ask, “Are both these groups of people from the same species?” Yet the heroism at Sri Lanka and the cruelty at Abu Ghraib are both typical of human beings.

How cowardice and heroism, cruelty and kindness can coexist within a species—indeed, within a single individual—is a question that may be asked and answered in many ways. For example, innumerable philosophers and spiritual seekers have pondered such questions over the millennia. It was not until the late 19th century, however, that questions such as these came to be considered from a scientific perspective, as the science of psychology was born—and it is the status of psychology as a science with which we will be concerned in Chapter 1.

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