We like to put ourselves above most nations of the world when it comes to our attitude on human rights, but the summary report on CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects released last week – and the hollow pronunciations of those defending the tactics -- show the huge gap between the vision we have of ourselves and what we really are.

The Senate Intelligence Committee spent five years investigating the CIA's secret program. According to a Washington Post story, the investigation revealed "levels of brutality, dishonesty and seemingly arbitrary violence that at times brought even agency employees to moments of anguish."


The CIA has issued its own report defending some of the practices, saying that information received help stop other attacks and aided in the fight on terror. But Arizona Sen. John McCain, who as a prisoner of war in Vietnam suffered at the hands of his captors, said in a speech on the Senate floor, "I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering."

Regardless of whether the tactics were useful though, it was something else McCain said on the Senate floor that captured my thoughts as I read about what the committee found. "The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights," McCain said.

The report lays bare the ugly fact that we are not so different from those who we would condemn for human rights abuses. Nor have we ever been.

Philip Zimbardo dedicated a large part of his life and career to the study of human behavior. Specifically, Zimbardo looked at why good people do bad things. In an early study, he recounted, "We took women students at New York University and made them anonymous. We put them in hoods, put them in the dark, took away their names, gave them numbers, and put them in small groups. And sure enough, within half an hour those sweet women were giving painful electric shocks to other women within an experimental setting... Any situation that makes you anonymous and gives permission for aggression will bring out the beast in most people. That was the start of my interest in showing how easy it is to get good people to do things they say they would never do."

Later, his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment took 24 students and made half of them guards and half of them prisoners. The prisoners were dehumanized, degraded and generally abused while some of those playing the guards were so enthusiastic they volunteered for extra duty on the experiment. Zimbardo ended the experiment in just six days, far earlier than planned, because of the results.

Zimbardo's findings were similar to the findings of Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram put "teachers" and "students" in rooms with instructions for the teachers to administer an electric shock when the student missed a question. With each miss, the voltage was increased. The first time Milgram did the experiment 65 percent of the participants increased the voltage to the maximum 450-volt shock.

Years later, Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University in California would do a similar experiment and see similar results.

These experiments, and others like them, have demonstrated time and again how easily the darker side of humanity can bubble to the surface. And these results were without the added rationalization that our efforts would help protect us from acts of terrorism.

McCain and many others have dispelled the myth that torture is a reliable way to get useful information from a suspect. More difficult to overcome, however, is our basic instinct to rise to leader of the pack status, most often through any means at our disposal, to exercise power over others.

Over the years we have evolved and, for the most part, we suppress that instinct. But there are times, as Zimbardo found, when that dark corner of our inner being will emerge and "bring out the beast in most people."

The beast emerged in our hysteria over terrorism following 9/11. Now, however, it is time to return the focus to what McCain said most distinguishes us from our enemies, "our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."

Jim Lee is the Carroll County Times' Editor. Email him at jim.lee@carrollcountytimes.com.