Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stories from the Interior

I spent last week in the interior of Liberia, in Nimba county, which is on the border of Ivory Coast and Guinea. Nimba has a long history, especially associated with the war here, as Charles Taylor entered Liberia from Ivory Coast, into Nimba, and then traveled on to Monrovia. I have lots of stories to tell you all and I'll start moving through them now that I have internet again, but here's one to get us started. This story might be a bit hard to hear, so feel free to skip and if you just follow this because you want to know where I am, I'll be back in the States on Sunday!

It's 6:45 am and I walk out of my hotel after a breakfast of buttered white toast, scrambled eggs with sliced hot dogs, and Nescafe with powdered milk. We have spent the night in one of the cities in Nimba after spending a week in a very rural area. We are driving back in an agency vehicle and the driver asks if we can take someone he knows along with us if she signs the liability waiver. I figure he knows the rules better than me, and say it's fine as long as the Country Director would be okay with it. A woman in her mid-20s climbs into the back of the car, explaining that she needs to get back to Monrovia in order to attend her classes that day.

Our driver was talking about his experiences during the war (no one says conflict here), he drove for everyone from the BBC during the active conflict to a number of organizations during the disarmament process. He mentions a tribunal that was convened by Charles Taylor during the war to try military crimes. The girl says that it was this tribunal that killed her father, it was when she was three years old. The driver asks who her father was, a general in the army, and the driver says he didn't know that was her father, but would she like to hear about what really happened to him?

According to him: her father was the commander of many troops, most of whom were relatively young and poorly trained. These troops massacred villagers in the interior (not in Nimba), and the international community found out about it. Her father stood trial for these crimes, although he was not involved and the troops actually disobeyed his orders by doing what they did. Despite the fact that Charles Taylor really liked her father, and her father was a great man, it was the  pressure of the international community that pushed them to punish someone for the crimes. And so her father was sentenced to death.

Girl: When I graduate from university and get a job, I have always said that with my first paycheck will go to finding where my father is buried, and building him a gravestone.
Driver: I know where your father is buried, not today, but some other time I can take you there, if you want.
Girl: Yes! I have always wanted to see this place where they killed him.

Then later in the conversation (this was a five hour drive after all):
Girl: It makes me feel too bad to see these people I go to school with, they call their father and he can help them pay their school fees and other things. Since I was a young girl I have been selling cold water (in bags) to people to earn enough money to buy notebooks and a uniform. My mother cannot help me and my father was killed. It makes me feel too angry when I see the people who I know participated in that [massacre] or who helped kill my father and now they are there, they are having families and they are happy. My father wanted to help Liberia and he was only killed and I am alone.
Driver: You see, this is a problem here, people are still very angry about the war. Every day you can see someone who you know helped kill your father or your brother or you burned down your house. You see these people and they have big money and big cars and they are very powerful. It makes people angry.
Me: Do you think there will ever be any kind of reconciliation or justice process?
Driver: How can there be? Everyone is guilty. There would be no one left in government. The wife of Charles Taylor is a senator, Prince Johnson [leader of a 2nd faction during the war] is a senator in Nimba, even Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf, the president] is guilty. She has admitted that she gave money to support Charles Taylor during the fighting. She claims it was for humanitarian purposes, but there was a war going on, if you wanted to be a humanitarian, why wouldn't you give the money to an NGO?
Me: So many of the people in power and in government currently were involved in the war?
Driver: Oh yes! And there is no justice because it is the people in power who are the very guilty ones. If we started to prosecute all the people who committed crimes during the war, there would be no one left in government.

And then a large SUV (one of the marks of wealth in Liberia) drives past, the license plate read DD1.
Driver: There. You see? This is Prince Johnson coming. 
Me: Wait, what?! That's Prince Johnson in that car?
Driver: Yes, yes. He is the one who killed Samuel Doe [who killed President William Tolbert to take power of the country]. Have you seen the photos?
Me: Hmm.... oh yes! He is the one who was wearing the hat and drinking the beer?! 
Driver: Yes. Everyone watched Prince Johnson humiliate Samuel Doe, and even though he begged for his life Samuel Doe killed him anyway. Doe would not tell Johnson where all the money he had stolen was hidden outside of the country. Even today no one knows where that money is.
Me: Oh wow, so it is somewhere else and it was never found?
Driver: Yes. And to see these pictures and the video then, everyone in the world could see it because it was videotaped. [Google it!] But the Congos [Americo-Liberians] here, Doe was killing all of them, so it is them who helped finance Johnson to come kill him.
Ah and there is his car of security men. You see it is a ways behind him because if someone attacks him, then this car of men with guns, all paid by Prince Johnson himself, not by the government even though he is a Senator, they will come and kill that person. There must be ten men in that car, youth who fought for him during the war, and they will surely all have guns. 
Me: So people here like Prince Johnson still?
Driver: Yes yes, they believe he defended Nimba, and you know most of the people who fought for him were from here, he is even senior in government. Did you see that license plate? He is on the national defense committee.

If people know a bit about the war here, they know about Charles Taylor, but Samuel Doe and Prince Johnson and two of the other very big participants in it. Here is the video, but be forewarned, it's someone torturing someone else, not exactly fun to watch, but amazing to think about the role of media in politics and persecution. (they will make you sign in because of the violent content)
And just remember that the man on the right drinking the beer is now a senior Senator. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

by Phillip Zimbardo, copyright Random House 2007

Each month, Reckoning with Wanderlust, presents a review of a book or film that relates to topics discussed here, such as international affairs, conflict, disaster, humanitarian work, vulnerable groups, or anything else tangentially connected. Please send suggestions for books or films to review to

In The Lucifer Effect, Phillip Zimbardo explores the question of why seemingly ‘good’ or ‘normal’ people do ‘evil’ things, how environmental factors contribute to that behavior. To use Zimbardo’s metaphor, when we speak of a ‘bad apple’ (one person doing bad things among many people doing good things can make all the apples bad), is it that one apple was in fact bad, or was the barrel itself (the environment) at least partially responsible?

First, Zimbardo presents The Stanford Prison Experiment in great detail, from his conception of it, as the Principal Investigator, to its implementation. Allow me to briefly summarize: the Stanford Prison Experiment was carried out at Stanford University, in California, in the 1970s. Zimbardo recruited students over the summer to participate in an experiment, although they were not told many details about it.  These participants were randomly assigned as either guards or prisoners, slated to play out these roles in a fabricated prison on Stanford’s campus. Members of each group soon come to display characteristics that one might describe as typical of prisoners or guards, obedience or cruelty respectively. As Zimbardo relays the exercise in great detail, the audience sees changes in the students, as some of the prisoners are forced to withdraw from the experiment due to physical and situational stress, while some of the guards thrive on the power. Zimbardo eventually terminates the experiment ahead of the planned end date after a colleague sees the guards marching prisoners down a school hallway (during summer vacation) with paper bags on their heads, chained together. It was only this outside observer who was able to see the outrageous nature of the scene, as Zimbardo himself had been engulfed by the circumstances.

Zimbardo follows this with a discussion of the ways in which situational forces influence our behavior, and how we are prone to make fundamental attribution errors, where we believe a person’s innate or learned characteristics are responsible for their behavior, when in fact, situational forces play at least as much of a role. Lastly, Zimbardo relates the Stanford Prison Experiment, and evidence supporting the power of situational forces, to examine the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When reading books of this nature, we often begin with a question, something we see but do not understand, hoping that knowledge can help us make sense of it. For me the question was related to children associated with fighting forces. I understand that when kidnapped, people and children especially eventually identify with their captors in order to survive and to mentally negotiate what they believe is their complicity in the situation. But it is one thing to identify or sympathize with a captor, it is another to do so to the extent that you are willing to kill and torture members of your clan, community, or even your family, as has occurred in cases of children associated with fighting forces during conflict.

One point that struck me as particularly applicable to this case was Zimbardo’s explanation of the role of anonymity and deindividuation supporting people’s slip into the grasp of situational forces. This involves the use of uniforms, costumes, “all disguises of one’s usual appearance that promote anonymity and reduce personal accountability.” (267) If we think of involvement in group conflict and violence, if at all organized, it rarely happens when one of the above conditions is not met. Everyone from militaries of government’s, to non-state fighting forces use uniforms, not only to demand obedience from those wearing them, but also to justify their tactics as part of “the system” as well as to get their subordinates to think of themselves firstly as part of the fighting force and secondly as individuals. Zimabardo continues “When people feel anonymous in a situation... they can more easily be induced behave in antisocial ways. This is especially so if the setting grants permission to enact one’s impulses or to follow order or implied guidelines that one would usually disdain.” Using disguises or uniforms obscure’s one’s sense of personal moral identity, and with its disappearance, it becomes easier to simply act on impulse or follow a crowd without questioning, since slipping into some guide has tucked away the individual’s sense of responsibility. This is true both for people in roles of authority, as well as those whose uniforms place them in a subordinate position; it makes them more inclined to obey order and conform with their peers, whether the result is, for example, better behavior from students in uniforms, or similarly dressed youth committing acts that were previously anathema to each of them individually, but are acceptable in the group setting.

Zimbardo contrasts the common thought that people are solely responsible for their individual actions, with his findings from involvement in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the trials of one soldier implicated in abuses at Abu Ghraib, “Traditional analyses by most people, including those in legal, religious, and medical institutions, focus on the actor as the sole causal agent. Consequently, they minimize or disregard the impact of situational variable and systemic determinants that shape behavioral outcomes and transform actors.” This is not to take away to power people have to make their own decisions, nor to take away to necessity of emphasizing individual responsibility to maintain social and moral standards in society at large. However, if we pay more attention to the circumstances, we may see that, in some cases, addressing negative situational influences can achieve more progress, than addressing or condemning the actions of an individual.

Let’s think, for example, or what are called briefcase NGOs here, those organizations that are, in fact, wholly contained in the briefcase of the member before you, as the ‘organization’ itself is nothing more than a front for collecting money, which will then be eaten (to use a local expression). Imagine this happened, we are free to point at the person who stole money and broke trust, calling him a thief, but let us also examine the situational forces at play. He sees people in power, from policemen to politicians accepting bribes or otherwise disguised payment with no negative consequences, informing his development of morality. Imagine he is unemployed, with radio or television or newspapers telling him that he is poor because others are rich. So this man believes that taking money from those who can afford to give, those who would donate to his briefcase NGO, is simply accessing what is due to him. He dons the attire of the NGO set, with an organization’s t-shirt, brochure in hand, and he becomes someone else. Imagine that he is part of a group of people doing this, such that he becomes part of a group. None of this undermines his personal responsibility in this case, he has still stolen from donors and can and should still be punished. But unless the situational influences at play are identified, by prosecuting this man we are merely slapping at a mosquito, instead of identifying their breeding source and working to eliminate it.

Zimbardo’s book is thought provoking and an interesting read for its content. However, just to warn you, the writing style leaves something to be desired, as Zimbardo practically stumbles over himself between mentioning Stanford’s accolades repeatedly, and self-praising for his own roles in parts of the book. This does not overwhelm the intriguing content of the book, but a good editor could have ensured that the style and prose rose to the quality demanded by the topic.

For more detailed information about the experiment, visit

Radio Silence

Hi Everyone!

So sorry I haven't been posting, the internet here isn't fast enough to access the blogger website! However after paying too much for some mediocre food at a place with fast internet, I think I've got it set up so that I can email in posts so you all can see them!

I've been back in Liberia for three weeks now and am having a lovely time again. I've got all sorts of posts coming for you, but just wanted to start by saying hello! Easter here in Monrovia start on Friday with church services. I was at a training held in a church so we got to hear the choir and part of the service, since most businesses here are closed on Good Friday. This morning the road near the churches were packed with cars and you could hear the singing down the street. I ate my mandatory chocolate (my family's version of Easter celebration) and then headed to the beach. Not too bad of a day if I do say so myself. This Friday is also a holiday here in Liberia, Fast and Prayer Day. I asked a colleague what we would be fasting and praying for, and apparently it's for the future of Liberia. Chances Americans would not eat for one day in the hopes of uplifting the country?

I'm excited to be able to post again and can't wait to share all of the ideas I've been having with you. 

Hoppy Easter and Passover
gypsy rose