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The General Aggression Model as a Framework
for Understanding Torture and Genocide

Arlin James Benjamin, Jr.

     The present paper will examine extreme acts of violence, such as torture and genocide, by utilizing a contemporary social psychological theory of aggression: the General Aggression Model (GAM; Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Anderson & Carnagey, 2004). First, working definitions of aggression and violence will be offered, followed by a brief description of GAM. Finally, examples of torture and genocide will be interpreted using the GAM as a framework.
Defining Aggression and Violence
     Baron and Richardson (1994) define aggression as any action that harms another individual who is motivated to avoid such harm. Along similar lines, Geen (2001) defines aggression in terms of four basic elements: 1) delivery of a harmful stimulus or stimuli (such as an insult, punch, etc.) to another person, 2) an intent to harm another person, 3) a belief that the action will be effective, and 4) a target (or victim) who is motivated to avoid being harmed. To the extent that these four conditions are met, we can consider a specific behavior as aggressive. Drawing upon both of these definitions (which overlap considerably) we will define aggression as any behavior that is intended to harm another person (either by introducing aversive stimuli or by more passive means such as withholding beneficial stimuli) who would otherwise be motivated to avoid being harmed (Benjamin, 2006).
     The more extreme acts of aggression that concern the present paper are categorized as violence. Violence will be defined as those aggressive actions resulting in the serious physical harm (including death) of its victims. Chasin (2004) notes that there are at least three types of violence: interpersonal, organizational, and structural. Interpersonal violence involves identifiable individuals who injure their victims. Usually, the perpetrators are aware of the fact that they have harmed another person or persons. Organizational violence involves explicit decisions made by individuals as part of their formal roles in organizations, such as the military, police, CIA, or a corporate bureaucracy. Although the decision-makers involved in organizational violence might have no direct interpersonal role in the harm caused to their victims, and in fact may even be abhorred by the actual process of violent actions such as torture and murder (e.g., Arendt, 1963), they are nonetheless committing a form of violence. The final type of violence, structural violence, involves the harm caused to victims who have been systematically prevented from having access to resources that are available to others. For our purposes, the focus will be on interpersonal and organizational violence.
     Although all acts of violence are by definition acts of aggression, not all acts of aggression are acts of violence. Many acts of aggression are relatively mundane and result in at most minimal physical harm, such as verbal attacks (e.g., insults) or minor physical assaults (e.g., hitting). A child calling another child an obscene name or pushing another child off a tricycle would by the above definition be labeled aggressive but not violent behaviors. On the other hand, a child who walks into a classroom and proceeds to shoot several of his classmates would be engaging in aggressive and violent behavior (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). Some definitions of violence require that there not only be serious physical harm done to the victim, but that the action is also illegal. Such a narrow definition is unsatisfactory in large part because of its failure to include extreme physical harm that is perpetrated under the aegis of a nation’s laws (typically in the form of organizational and structural violence). Torture and genocide are typically state-sanctioned activities, hence considered “legal” from the perspective of those governments actively engaged in torture and genocide (although in terms of contemporary international law they would be deemed criminal conduct; see UN, 1985).
     The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment or Treatment (United Nations, 1985) defines torture as: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” Acts that would be considered torture under the above definition include a variety of methods: severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labor, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, hanging for prolonged periods, deprivation of basic biological needs (e.g., sleep, food, water), subjection to forced constant standing or crouching, and excessive continuous noise (e.g. McCoy, 2006; Walsh, 2006). Torture may also include actions inducing psychological suffering such as threats against the victim’s family or loved ones (e.g., McCoy, 2006).
     Arguably the best definition of genocide is that of Raphael Lemkin (1944, p. 79). The origins of the term genocide come from the Greek root genos (meaning "type" - think along the lines of tribe or race) and the Latin word cide (meaning "killing"; Lemkin, 1944; see also Churchill, 1997). Lemkin describes genocide as having “has two phases: destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and colonization of the area by the oppressor's own nationals." Lemkin states further that

“genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves (even if all individuals within the dissolved group physically survive). The objectives of such a plan would be a disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed at the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed at individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group" (p. 79).

Therefore, genocide from this perspective includes a wide array of actions that contribute to the annihilation of a target group, including destruction of the target group’s crops (e.g., via fire or chemical agents), destruction of the target group’s infrastructure, the mass murder of women of child-bearing age and children, forced sterilization of members of the group, indoctrination into the dominant group’s cultural practices at the expense of the target group’s own traditions, forbidding the target group from engaging in its traditional religious and cultural practices, etc. (Churchill, 2003, 2004; Sartre, 1974). From the above definition, a number of events can be labeled genocide, including Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, the annihilation of numerous indigenous societies in the Americas by European colonialists and later the US government, the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the US government’s combination of wars and sanctions aimed at the Iraqi population, to name but a few (Chomsky, 2004; Churchill, 1997, 2003, 2004; Friedberg, 2000; Sartre, 1974; Stannard, 1992).
General Aggression Model
     The General Aggression Model (GAM) is a social-cognitive model that includes situational, individual, and biological factors that interact to produce a variety of cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral outcomes (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Anderson & Carnagey, 2004). In any individual act of aggression, there are two basic classes of input variables: situational and individual. The former may include such stimuli as provocations (e.g., insults, frustrations) or cognitive cues (e.g., the presence of firearms). The latter may include individual variation in terms of personality and attitudes and in biological makeup. These input variables interact to prime three routes to aggression: cognitive (e.g., aggression-related scripts or schemas; see, e.g., Huesmann, 1998), affective (e.g., hostile feelings, expressive motor responses), and physiological (e.g., increases in heart rate or blood pressure). Variables traversing these routes in turn influence a person’s immediate appraisal of the situation. This immediate appraisal occurs automatically (e.g., outside of consciousness and control), and includes an interpretation of the situation (e.g., the potential for harm, malicious intentions of target person) and an interpretation and experience of affect (e.g., anger at target person). Once an immediate appraisal of the situation has been made, reappraisal may occur. Reappraisal is a thoughtful, effortful, and conscious process in which the individual considers additional information concerning the situation, alternative behavioral responses to the situation, feasibility of the various alternatives, and consequences of carrying out the various alternative behavioral responses. Because reappraisal is an effortful process, it is undertaken only when the individual has sufficient cognitive resources available. The immediate appraisal and reappraisal stages are analogous to the stages of social inference described by Anderson, Krull, & Weiner (1996) and Krull & Erikson (1995). At the final stage in the model, there is a behavioral outcome in which the individual acts in an aggressive or non-aggressive manner.
     In our efforts to understand phenomena such as torture and genocide, it is important to stress the role played by input variables that are both distal and proximate. Distal variables are ones that are part of the perpetrators’ social background over a long period of time, which will influence their readiness to behave violently (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Anderson & Carnagey, 2004). Distal factors that are most salient for our purposes include cultural norms that support violence, group conflicts, difficult life conditions, deprivation, diffusion of responsibility, lack of bystander intervention in violent encounters, exposure to violent media and propaganda, and past victimization experiences (Anderson & Carnagey, 2004). Proximate risk factors include those situational and individual variables that are present in the current social episode. Proximate situational variables that are salient for our present purposes include the presence of social stressors, physical and verbal threats, media violence, the presence of weapons, and pain and discomfort. Proximate individual variables include trait aggressiveness, attitudes toward violence, acceptance of cultural stereotypes, self-efficacy beliefs about violent behavior, and aggressive and violent behavioral scripts stored in long-term memory.
Distal Causes of Torture and Genocide
     1.) Cultural norms. In examining distal precursors to torture, we must certainly include cultural norms that support violence. For example, there is little doubt that prior to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the United States showed widespread societal acceptance of excessive military force and torture (Chomsky, 2004; Churchill, 2003; Zinn, 1995). America’s history is replete with violent lynchings and genocide domestically and excessive violence internationally (see, e.g., Churchill, 2003; Friedberg, 2000; Graham & Gurr, 1979; Zinn, 1995) along with a pattern of bending – if not outright breaking Constitutional and international laws and treaties in order to carry out said violence (Churchill, 2003). In fact, for a “nation of peace” hardly a year has gone by in which there hasn’t been at least some military action carried out either domestically or internationally (Churchill, 2003). That history is coupled with a sort of cultural myopia – sometimes referred to as “American exceptionalism” (see Churchill, 2003) – in which America’s treatment of others in the developing world is perceived to be based on the most noble of intentions and in which human rights abuses, when they do occur, are looked at as merely isolated exceptions contrary to otherwise “benign” policies and practices (Chomsky, 2004; Churchill, 2003). Add to that a tendency to consider those belonging to nations in the developing world as “children” in need of discipline – a metaphor that appears often in the spoken and written words of many of America’s political and military leaders, both past and present (Chomsky, 2004; see also Lakoff, 2002 for a detailed treatment of the metaphor underlying this view). From such a vantage point, it is perhaps quite unsurprising that human rights abuses, such as those at Abu Ghraib, occur routinely as the culture of the military system (itself a microcosm of the nation it serves) invites soldiers to perceive themselves as “strict fathers” providing stern discipline to “wayward children” (Lakoff, 2002).
     2.) Violent media and propaganda. As part of the cultural Zeitgeist in states that sanction torture, we will find evidence of widespread exposure to propaganda designed to demonize and dehumanize the victims. In the United States, for example, Muslims have been portrayed in the mass media for decades as backward savages who have no respect for international law and who pose a threat to Western civilization. The Greek torturers studied by Haritos-Fatouros (2003) had certainly been exposed to various forms of anti-communist and university student propaganda prior to joining the Greek military. Individuals exposed to media violence become more prone to behave violently due to two factors. First, exposure to media violence (e.g., films, video games, music, literature) is linked to increased levels of aggressive behavior in both lab experiments and field studies. Longitudinal research also shows that the effects of media violence exposure can linger for decades. Huesmann (1998) contends that exposure to media violence leads to the storage of violent behavioral scripts in long-term memory which may be invoked at a later time. The more exposure that individuals have to media violence, the more they rehearse those behavioral scripts, thus making those behavioral scripts increasingly automatic. Second, exposure to media violence serves to desensitize individuals to violence. Individuals become less likely to notice violent behavior and less likely to intervene if they do notice.
Proximate Causes of Torture and Genocide
     In discussing torturers’ “obedience to the authority of violence,” Haritos-Fatouros (2003; see also, Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, & Zimbardo, 2002; Zimbardo, 2004) outlines a number of proximate causes designed to increase compliance and bonding with those in authority as well as with peers, and to reduce stress and strain.
     1.) Harassment, compliance, and conformity. Haritos-Fotouros (2003, p. 163) notes these as effective devices in that they are “heavy, irrational, and coercive physical and psychological violence to provide calculated stress, prevent logical thinking and increase the reflexive response needed to commit unthinkable acts.” If the perpetrators feel sufficiently trapped in the situation, authorities are better positioned to order them to continue escalating destructive behaviors against their victims. This can be accomplished by making the punishment for desertion by military personnel more severe than the negative consequences of continuing to obey orders (e.g., Haritos-Fatouros, 2003). Similarly, if personnel find that whistle-blowing (i.e., openly reporting illegal acts such as torture and genocide) will not be tolerated or taken seriously (as was the case with the Abu Ghraib abuses; see, e.g., McCoy, 2006), and that non-conformists are severely punished, they will experience tremendous pressure to either continue engaging in human rights abuses or at bare minimum figure out ways of ignoring their occurrence. If the perception is that there is no viable recourse but to continue doling out the abuse, then it’s not terribly surprising that the perpetrators will do precisely as they are told (Milgram, 1974).
     2.) Deindividuation of the torturer. Destructive obedience is much more easily carried out if the perpetrator can psychologically distance himself or herself from the victim (Milgram, 1965, 1974). This can be facilitated by deindividuation (e.g., uniforms, etc., that make one blend in with the group, thus decreasing accountability; see Zimbardo, 1970). To the extent that perpetrators of atrocity can appear “other than” they would under everyday circumstances, they can operate under the illusion that they are not really responsible for their actions.
     3.) Dehumanization of the victim. Victims may be dehumanized in a number of ways, including the use of racial epithets, claims that the victims are “savages” or “have no souls” or are “sub-human”, thus reducing the perpetrator’s ability to empathize with the victim. Disguising victims with hoods or masks can also achieve similar effect (Zimbardo, 2004). The photos that documented the torture in Abu Ghraib showed prisoners who were hooded, whose faces were covered by female undergarments, or completely stripped of clothing altogether (Hersh, 2004; Walsh, 2006) – which itself can have a dehumanizing effect to the extent that they are being stripped of their identities and their cultures. We can also look at the rampant racism and ethnocentrism that appears to be endemic in the U.S. military culture. The organization itself promotes the use of racial and ethnic slurs (e.g., Hajjis, ragheads) and stereotypes (e.g., Islam as a religion that is inherently violent) that serve to dehumanize their victims (see, e.g., Rockwell, 2005). The more psychological distance that can be created in such an environment, the more difficult it is for military personnel to have empathy with the prisoners and it is this loss of empathy that may pave the path to torture.
     4.) Victim blame. One means of reducing the psychological strain of destructive obedience is to shift responsibility to the victim. In Milgram’s (1974) obedience experiments, for example, participants often blamed the victim for having volunteered for the experiment in the first place, or blamed the victim for being stupid or obstinate. Haritos-Fatouros (2003) observes a similar phenomenon among Greek torturers. The psychological function of blaming victims of torture for their humiliation is to make the torture victim appear less than human, which in turn reduces the perpetrators’ inhibitions. In fact, such victim blame is likely facilitated by techniques in which the victims’ pain or humiliation appears self-inflicted (McCoy, 2006). Furthermore, the central assumption made by torturers of their victims’ guilt – the victims are typically referred to as “terrorists”, “guerillas”, or “insurgents” – enables torturers to not only blame the victims for their plight, but to harbor the illusion that torture will elicit valuable information (Kelman, 2005). By releasing the psychological constraints regarding how to treat fellow human beings, torturers find it easier to engage in the cruel treatment of their victims.
     5.) Belief in a higher cause. Atrocity perpetrators often believe that they are acting in the name of some higher cause or transcendent mission (Kelman, 2005). For example, the Greek military junta of the late 1960s and early 1970s trained recruits to believe that they were serving a sort of “Greek Christianity” and that they were “pillars of the state” whose actions were necessary in the struggle against evil, inhuman dissidents (Haritos-Fatouros, 2003). Belief in a higher cause enables torturers to align themselves with those in authority while at the same time perceiving torture victims as tangible threats to that order (Kelman, 2005). To the extent that torture can be perceived as “just, moral, and worthy,” torturers can deceive themselves into believing that their actions are ultimately good (Kelman, 2005).
     6.) Social modeling. The modeling of torture may be done either formally (as in the case of the Greek military police; Haritos-Fatouros, 2003) or informally (as in the case of Brazilian torturers and executioners; Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, & Zimbardo, 2002). Role modeling may be either direct or indirect, and may be either explicit or implicit (e.g., Bandura, 1973). As part of formal or informal training, recruits may be directly involved in acts of abuse against victims or merely brought along as observers. In the cases of torture at US military facilities such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, it is plain that the organizational culture was primed for human rights abuses (Blum, 2005; Hersh, 2004; McCoy, 2006; Ratner & Ray, 2004). It appears that at every level of the US military organization as well as the CIA that there was an acceptance of cruel treatment, and that this acceptance of cruel treatment has a lengthy history (Blum, 2005; McCoy, 2006). General Sanchez, for example, obviously had no problems with activities that were known violations of international law as recent news reports have shown (American Civil Liberties Union, 2005). He led by example – although he was hardly alone (see, e.g., Blum, 2005; McCoy, 2006; Ratner & Ray, 2004, Walsh, 2006). Of course we also know that the military was highly secretive about its treatment of POWs, as has been discussed in detail elsewhere (see, e.g., Ratner & Ray, 2004, for more detail).
     7) Trivialization and routinization of evil. Destructive obedience does not occur overnight, but rather the perpetrator must be eased into increasingly brutal behaviors over a period of time. Both Milgram (1965, 1974) and Zimbardo (1970) aptly demonstrated this point with their own experimental research, and historically we’ve seen this point documented time and time again (the atrocities committed by the Germans during the Nazi era come most readily to mind). By using a clearly identified sequence of steps and gradually escalating the abuses against the victims, those who will perpetrate those abuses don’t realize what’s going on until it is too late. They become increasingly desensitized to the horrors that are going on around them, and that they too may be perpetrating (Kelman, 2005).
     The horrors depicted in the photos and videos taken at Abu Ghraib (see, e.g., Walsh, 2006) did not happen immediately, but rather escalated over a period of months. Indeed, the basic thrust of the Sanchez memo (American Civil Liberties Union, 2005) provides some insight into the desensitization process. Once personnel are used to roughing up prisoners, threatening them with muzzled dogs, and placing them in highly uncomfortable postures for long periods of time, personnel are unlikely to perceive encouragements to “up the ante” as extreme. Gradually, using un-muzzled attack dogs, sodomy, and other torturous acts become seen as “normal” or “reasonable” behaviors within the context of the military prison - so normal, in fact, that personnel likely saw nothing unusual in posing next to these tortured prisoners as their colleagues took photos (Hersh, 2004).
     Diffusion of responsibility is another vehicle for trivializing torture and genocide. Destructive obedience is most easily facilitated under conditions where the perpetrators can pass the buck to someone else. Perhaps the authorities in charge give their assurances that they, rather than the perpetrators, are in charge and responsible for whatever outcomes occur (Hofling, Brotzman, Dairymple, Graves, & Pierce, 1966; Milgram, 1965, 1974). Diffusion of responsibility may be accomplished by compartmentalizing tasks sufficiently so that one has only a small role in the abuse that is perpetrated. Some individuals in a prison camp may be merely assigned clerical duties, whereas others have some other limited role in the process of torturing or harming their victims. This provides the basis for the so-called “Nuremberg Defense” in which one can claim to be merely following orders, or simply involved in filing paperwork, taking photos, or other routine tasks (see, e.g., Arendt, 1963). Diffusion of responsibility can also be facilitated by group size. In large groups where individuals feel relatively anonymous, it is easier to engage in cruel behaviors, such as lynchings (e.g., Mullen, 1986).
     Euphemisms, too, can be used to trivialize and minimize the harm done to others – at least in the minds of the perpetrators. Haritos-Fatouros (2003) noted that Greek torturers used “tea party” and “tea party with toast” to refer to specific forms of torture. Similarly, torturers may simply refer to forms of torture as “plan one” or “plan two” (Haritos-Fatouros (2003). The use of euphemisms is not so much to hide the atrocities, but to add an air of professionalism to the practice (Kelman, 2005).
     The above is only a beginning to understanding the social psychology of torture and genocide. A more complete treatment of the cognitive, affective, and physiological routes (as well as the appraisal processes) involved in the formation and maintenance of the various behaviors involved in torture and genocide. Although those processes are arguably difficult at best to measure in “real world” settings where these forms of violence are being practiced, we can gain some insight from laboratory experimentation. That will be the focus of a future paper.
     In the meantime, an insight into the distal and proximate antecedents to torture and genocide gives us the means to prevent these forms of extreme violence. Proximate causes, both at the macro and micro level can be dealt with by more vigorous enforcement of existing international laws, and by offending nations systematically investigating and correcting any facet of their governments’ organizational culture that facilitates these serious human rights abuses. Treating the distal causes of torture and genocide may be more difficult to the extent that those perpetrating these abuses are typically so thoroughly embedded in a specific historical and cultural context that they merely take the assumptions of that context for granted.


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