The Banality of Abu Ghraib

As more images of debased Iraqi detainees ricochet around the world, many viewers are as bewildered as they are outraged. How could ordinary American soldiers, whether they were following orders or acting on their own, appear so untroubled, even exhilarated by their brutish conduct?

To be sure, over-eager military-intelligence interrogators, as well as the Bush Administration's high-handed attitude toward international law, helped precipitate the crisis. But few commentators have focused enough attention on the site of this macabre theatre - not a battlefield, but a prison.

Prison experts are the least surprised by the grotesque reports filtering out of Abu Ghraib. They recognize that prisons, as uniquely divisive and authoritarian institutions, regularly give rise to behaviors that appear depraved to the wider world but come to seem acceptable - even normal - behind bars. Indeed, some of the most publicized prison scandals have erupted in the United States, which incarcerates more people in absolute and per capita terms than any other country.

Compared to Saddam Hussein's murderous old regime at Abu Ghraib, of course, American prisons are relatively well managed. But as mandatory sentencing rules have landed more and more Americans behind bars, incidents that bear a disquieting resemblance to the degenerate cruelties photographed in Iraq have come increasingly to light.