The Washington Post Column

What Would You Do?

Turn the clock back six months. Imagine yourself on the other side of the world, in the soldiers’ quarters at Abu Ghraib prison. Conditions are primitive: There is no mess hall, everyone sleeps in former cellblocks, it’s impossible to escape the heat. As one of 450 military police in charge of 7,000 inmates, you wear 60 pounds of body armor at all times, and serve in shifts lasting up to 18 hours. You don’t know who the prisoners really are, but you do know that any one of them might attack you, and that all of them might riot at any moment. During the day, you’re tense and sweaty. At night insurgents fire over the prison walls.

Now imagine you have been told that military intelligence wants some of the prisoners “softened up” for interrogation. What do you do?

Don’t argue that you would be forced to obey. For despite the heat and the stress, the soldiers who faced this situation at Abu Ghraib six months ago were not completely deprived of choices. Clearly Pfc. Lynndie R. England, whose face now stares out at us almost daily from the newspaper front pages — cigarette in hand, grinning behind a pile of naked men, pulling an Iraqi prisoner by a dog collar — had a choice: She chose to pose for the photographs, despite the fact that her clerk’s job required little contact with detainees. By contrast, Spec. Joseph M. Darby, whose picture we’ve hardly seen at all, had a choice too: He chose to place an anonymous note under the door of a superior describing the abuse. Later he chose to make a sworn statement, setting off the investigation.

But don’t argue that anything — your religion, your education, your material background — would automatically make you accept or reject that order either. In hindsight, it seems clear that Pfc. England is a villain, and that Spec. Darby is a hero. Yet nothing in the biography of either predicts those labels. England’s lawyer describes her as a “20-year-old farm girl from West Virginia who lives in a trailer park” — almost the same socioeconomic profile as Jessica Lynch. England’s friends have described her as normal, happy, well-adjusted. “It’s not like her to be like that,” a family friend says of the photos. “She’s a caring person.” According to her mother, Lynndie England joined the army to pay for college: She loved thunderstorms, and wanted to be a meteorologist.

But if England’s biography contains no clues, neither does that of Darby. He, too, lived in a coal town, in a household headed by a disabled stepfather. To make ends meet, he worked the night shift at Wendy’s. If that sounds potentially heroic, look closer. It seems Darby was well known, in his days at North Star High School in southwest Pennsylvania, for punching out paper towel dispensers. His former girlfriend remembers him “pounding” on someone who insulted him on a school bus. When a Washington Post reporter told one of Darby’s other high school friends of his heroic decision to protest the mistreatment of prisoners, the man shook his head and said, “That don’t sound like Joe.”

The lesson, if there is one, is that no one’s behavior in extreme circumstances is predictable. Childhood poverty is no more an excuse or an explanation for villainy than it is a necessary component of heroism. Neither love of thunderstorms nor a penchant for destroying paper towel dispensers provides a clue to how a person will behave when, as at Abu Ghraib, all of the rules are removed. Evil is a mystery. So is heroism.

Over the next few months, many will claim otherwise. Inevitably, and perhaps understandably, the characters of the soldiers involved in abuse will become part of the argument over who is to blame. Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick’s family has already posted Web photographs of their son, one of those under arrest, with his arm around Iraqi children — as if a child-loving patriot could not be responsible for prisoner abuse. At the same time, Army superiors have spoken of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib as a “rogue unit” — as if no ordinary soldiers could do such things, as if the explanation for these events lies only in their psyches and not in the system created over many months.

As I say, this kind of talk is inevitable, perhaps understandable. But it should be kept in perspective. The best way to do that is to keep reminding yourself that the only possible answer to the question “What would you do” in such a situation has to be: “I don’t know.”