WORDS: 1,460 —  There are just so many things we just never learn about ourselves as humans, then we slip into shock & awe when something embarrassing pops up, and we scream and holler how unjust and inhuman we are.  We humans spend a lot of time consuming ourselves in some form or another.  This time it seems we just and compassionate Americans are doing “human roundups” on horseback along the border.  Flashbacks galore!

So how does any of that wild and woolly, wild west theater on the southern border compare to the embarrassment of those prisoner torture and abuse photos taken by GI guards at the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004?  Certainly we are more civilized now, right?  Well… Okay, so who do we blame this time?  Let’s try human nature… and management that fails to understand that..

The picture is worth a thousand words.  White men on horseback lassoing and rounding up black people.  Frankly to me just doing that with a horse regardless of the skin color of the victims, is just welcoming an injury or death if someone falls under the hoofs of those animals.  It’s idiotic, yet to a certain degree I understand it.  But understanding it doesn’t make it right.  There’s a total lack of sensitivity (or a complete display of insensitivity)  and respect toward those people being displaced human beings, and why they are even there under that bridge in the first place.  I am in NO way suggesting that we just let ’em all in.  Yet there are reasons these border agents are acting in this manor.  One has to presume that before they left home on their work day they likely kissed and hugged their kids, and their spouses, on the way out the door… and then their job takes them on horse back rounding up “stray” humans, apparently lassoing them at times, and forcing them tripping and stumbling and falling, back into the “herd”.  One looking at these pictures might wonder if these agents were enforcing law, defending some policy, told to do this for fear of losing their job, caught up in the excitement and thrill, or are simply acting on their own in trying to work within a complex situation of ill-defined procedures and goals.

So What’s This Got To Do With Abu Ghraib And This Stanford Thing?

Because what we are seeing in these photos… and what we are likely to hear in stories coming from inside that mass of humanity under that bridge on the border in the days and weeks to come, is a demonstration of human social dynamics within the realm of social psychology… or to borrow the phrase, understanding what makes good men (or women) turn evil.  (That’s not to imply that actions by the border agents could be deemed “evil” but rather contrary to moral norms)  Let’s start with The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Back in 1970/1971 the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded research into anti-social behaviors, specifically as it related to situations between military prison guards and prisoners, at the urging of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.  From Wiki… The prison experiment was designed to examine the effects of situational variables on participants’ reactions and behaviors, in a two-week simulation of a prison environment. Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo led the research team who conducted the experiment in the summer of 1971.

The experiment was very well documented, even on film with audio.  In fact, a movie was made of this experiment in 2015.  In certain psych curriculums across the country this experiment has been used to illustrate both “faulty experiment parameters” and more like a “case study”.   A total of 24 people, subjects, took part.. half being “prison guards” and the other half being “prisoners”.  I encourage the reader to at least read the Wiki description… HERE... as the details are quite interesting.  It was to be a 14 day duration but lasted only 6 days because of a number of psychological changes developed between those that were guards and those that were prisoners.  In other words.. things turned very real as time went on.  In essence the study revealed the evolutionary transition with the guards becoming more adversarial and punitive to the prisoners… and prisoners becoming more aggressive and subjective to their confinement.. and with interventions from the guards, much being unnecessary for control and far more about “enjoyment”.

How any of this might relate to the incidents unfolding at the border… simply is to illustrate that the situations and environment is evolving to specific roles of response between border guards in general, and on horseback in particular, and that of the refugees.  Those border guards are showing some level of frustration extending through their actions… not to mention the visual of white men on horseback (height translating to authority and power) “assaulting”  to make the crowd submissive.  I would not in the least be surprised if this continues certain enclaves of people just might lash out and pull a border guard from his horse, especially if someone gets injured by a horse.

Let’s fast forward 30 years to 2004… and those “brag” photos from the torture and abuse at the hands of the U.S. military at that Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib Prison.  Psych professor Zimbardo of the Stanford experiment is still in practice and using a single case of a convicted military guard from that prison affair, he writes a book in 2007,  The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, where he discusses his Stanford research as it relates to Abu Ghraib.  (The Lucifer effect, coined by Zimbardo, describes the point in time when an ordinary, normal person first crosses the boundary between good and evil to engage in an evil action.)

Ok, So It’s A Human Condition Brought About By Experiencing Inhuman Environments… What Can We Do About It?

I call it a management problem.  Every one of those border guards has a supervisor, chief, a captain.. whatever.   In normal situations as a manager/supervisor we know how our people work in their jobs and do their jobs with a measure of professionalism.  Normally we allow them to carry out their duties because we trust in their training and experience.  We  might evaluate their performance overall from their handing of their responsibilities, certain successes in the application of their training and experience, and the degree in which they can work in a team as well as individually.  I will venture to suggest that not one of those border guards on horseback has dealt with a mass of humanity this large… and with that comes a frustration and confusion in how they are going to handle this and how does one even administer their training in this kind of environment.  To top that off, your commanders, on-site managers, have no idea as well.  Orders are likely changing by the hour in how they are to handle all these people, thus adding to the frustration.  On top of even that… if you do wish to display a measure of compassion to help someone… to get down off your horse and check an injury… there is no time, there’s no one to watch your horse for fear someone will take it, and you do not have anything immediately available to assist anyone.  It’s easy to understand how the chaos itself permeates the evolution of “bad” action.

If it were me…. horses are great for traveling in rough country and in that roll they are invaluable to a border agent.  Horse are not for this kind of crowd control.  Get a vehicle.. or get smaller vehicles… golf carts, to handled the area under the bridge.  Also.. on-site supervisors need to get out of the command center and supervise.  Watch how their agents are functioning in the field.  Sure.. all that is easier said than done.. especially if it seems like one big free-for-all.  Seems to me in that mess if your boss gives you an order to “Keep them from getting on this side of the river!  Send ’em back!”  someone is not in touch with reality.  You and a few compadres on horseback are not going to force anyone back anywhere.  That’s not your job.  Wait for the military.. and use your training to tend to the safety of the building crowd, making sure they are safe from predators in their ranks, maybe give some first aid… pass info on where the porta-potties are or where to get water.

Oh.. for sure I am just an armchair follower of all this.  I know nothing about border protection.  Yep, I’ve not walked a mile in a border agent’s life to understand everything he/she does… or seen the things he/she has seen.  In the end all I am is just another human being…. like those border guards… and refugees.


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