What the Iraq Prison Abuse Scandal Reveals

Looking Calmly at the Monster and Letting It Go

This is an edited version of the class notes for a class taught at the Circle of Atonement on Tuesday, May 18, 2004.

The recent revelations of severe prisoner abuse—even torture—by American military personnel in Iraq have shocked people throughout the world. Many have asked, “How could this happen?” Yet I think in the Course’s view, it is not at all surprising that such things happen. In my mind, this scandal offers us a precious opportunity to undo our denial of the ego’s darkness. The Course is clear that looking squarely at the ego’s illusions in the calm light of truth is essential if we want to free ourselves from the horror the ego has wrought:

No one can escape from illusions unless he looks at them, for not looking is the way they are protected. There is no need to shrink from illusions, for they cannot be dangerous. We are ready to look more closely at the ego’s thought system because together we have the lamp that will dispel it…Let us be very calm in doing this, for we are merely looking honestly for truth. (T-11.V.1:1-4)

Let us, then, take a closer look at the Iraq prison scandal from the perspective A Course in Miracles gives us. We will be looking at the monstrous acts of other people, but the point is not to pass judgment on these people, but to use their example to illuminate ego dynamics common to all of us. I’m reminded of what Jesus once said to Helen before giving an account of the ego lapses she and Bill had fallen into on a particular day: “There is nothing of special interest about the events described below, except their typical nature” (Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, p. 260). The “monster” revealed by the Iraq prison scandal is all too typical, but if we are willing to look at it calmly, we will put ourselves in a position to let it go through forgiveness.


The Iraq prison abuse scandal in a nutshell

Recently released photographs revealed that some American soldiers guarding Iraqi prisoners in Abu Graib Prison were severely abusing them, to a degree that would fit any reasonable definition of “torture.” Abuses included sexual humiliation, “stress positions,” severe beatings, cruel mind games, and much more. There are reports of even more severe abuses in Abu Graib and elsewhere; a senator who has seen unreleased photos says, “We’re talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges.” Most of the prisoners are likely innocent of any wrongdoing—at least 60% according to American officials, 70% to 90% according to the Red Cross. The photos were apparently taken by the soldiers themselves as “souvenirs.” In the photos, soldiers are clearly enjoying themselves as they are abusing the prisoners. In a sworn statement, one soldier said, “We thought it looked funny so pictures were taken.”


The reaction: The monster is in others, attacking me.

A brother separated from yourself, an ancient enemy, a murderer who stalks you in the night and plots your death, yet plans that it be lingering and slow; of this you dream. (T-27.VII.12:1)

Virtually everyone in America is looking for someone to blame for these atrocities (except for those who say that the things that happened weren’t atrocities). For example:

  • The accused soldiers say it’s the military: They were just following orders.
  • The military says it’s the accused soldiers: They were just a few bad apples.
  • Some say it’s the terrorists: Those prisoners were probably guilty and deserved it
  • Some say it’s the Bush Administration: one more example of its arrogant bullying.
  • Almost everyone (in America) agrees that it’s not representative of America.

Of course, a number of these things may well be true on a form level; there’s a great deal of debate about just who was responsible for what. But I’m struck by what all these theories have in common: all of them say, “The monster is in someone else.” These responses are representative of the face of innocence, the part of our self-concept that “believes that it is good within an evil world” (T-31.V.2:9). We are innocent victims of all those horrible monsters out there. A murderer separated from myself is out there stalking me. This, according to the Course, is the surface self-concept of virtually everyone in the world: not just those soldiers and the people assigning blame for the prison abuses, but all of us.

Think about a situation in your own life when you did something hurtful to someone else. Have you blamed external factors or other people for your “monstrous” behavior, in order to maintain your face of innocence?


The truth according to the Course (part 1): The monster is in me, attacking others.

Yet underneath this dream [of a brother stalking you] is yet another, in which you become the murderer, the secret enemy, the scavenger and the destroyer of your brother and the world alike. (T-27.VII.12:2)

In the midst of the blame game surrounding the Iraq prison scandal, a rare few are putting forth another theory about where the monster is. Who are the abusers? According to Time Magazine (May 17, 2004):

Psychologists and historians who study torture give what is probably the most disturbing explanation of all: they are us. For under certain circumstances, almost anyone has the capacity to commit the atrocities seen in the photos that have shocked the world.

Here are just a few studies that demonstrate this:

German reservists in World War II

Historian Christopher Browning researched a group of ordinary World War II German reservists. They were not Nazi zealots steeped in anti-Semitism, nor were they career soldiers out to impress their superiors. Yet they massacred thousands of Jewish villagers with little or no coercion from their officers. Browning says, “Not all the reservists went along with the killings. But the majority of ordinary people can be induced to go along with a group.”

The “obedience to authority” experiments

Stanley Milgram did a series of experiments on obedience to authority at Yale University in 1961-1962. He found that most of his subjects, who were ordinary people, were willing to give apparently devastating electric shocks—up to 450 volts—to a pitifully protesting victim (actually an actor, who was unharmed), simply because a scientific authority commanded them to.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In a 1971 study that the Iraqi prison scandal has brought back into the news, Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison in which some students were “guards” and others “prisoners.” The guards, all students who had scored in the “normal” and “healthy” range on standard psychological tests, were instructed to maintain control of the prison, but not to use violence, humiliation, or other dehumanizing tactics. The experiment was intended to go two weeks, but the guards became so sadistic and the prisoners so distressed that it had to be ended after only six days.

The verdict: Within even ordinary, “normal” people, there is a vicious attacker just below the surface that can be unleashed simply by removing the social restraints that normally keep it in check. Not everyone will succumb to the monster within, but apparently most will. Sound familiar? The Course tells us that underneath our “normal” facade—our face of innocence—is a monstrous ego that is bent on attacking others without provocation. We aren’t victimized by an external murderer stalking us; we are the murderer stalking the world. What’s more, our egos don’t just come out when social constraints are removed, but attack in seemingly milder forms virtually all the time. Thus, while it’s true that those soldiers at Abu Graib Prison engaged in monstrous acts that revealed the darkness of the ego within them, it is not confined to them. It is something that exists in all of us.

Think of the most “monstrous” thing you have ever done to another person. You might want to write down an account of what happened, to get it clearer in your mind. Why did you do it? How did you feel about it then? How about now? Might this event be evidence that there is a “monster” in you that attacks others just because it wants to attack? Even if what you did is “milder” than what the Iraq soldiers did, might it be that you are not so different from them?


The truth according to the Course (part 2): The monster is in me, attacking myself.

Now, for an instant, is a murderer perceived within you, eager for your death, intent on plotting punishment for you until the time when it can kill at last. (W-pI.196.11:1)

Ultimately, the Course says, the target of that monstrous ego within is not other people, but ourselves. Underneath all of our attacks on others—including the prisoner abuse by those American soldiers—is an urge for self-destruction so terrifying that we project it onto the world and see our own attack on ourselves coming from outside us. This dynamic, like the others, exists in all of us. (I once had a vivid experience of this murderer within me. I wrote an article about this experience entitled “‘The Ego Does Want to Kill You’: An Experience of the Murderer Within.”)

Have you ever noticed self-destructive tendencies in yourself? Have you done things that you knew would be harmful to you, yet you just couldn’t resist doing them? You may want to write down some examples. Might this be evidence that there is a “monster” in you that is bent on destroying you?


The truth according to the Course (part 3): The monster is an illusion that, once seen as it really is, can be shined away through forgiveness.

Rest in the Holy Spirit, and allow His gentle dreams to take the place of those you dreamed in terror and in fear of death. He brings forgiving dreams, in which the choice is not who is the murderer and who shall be the victim. In the dreams He brings there is no murder and there is no death….The sleep is peaceful now, for these are happy dreams. (T-27.VII.14:3-5, 8)

This is the good news. It is so good that Lesson 196 says of the instant we see the murderer within ourselves: “Pray that the instant may be soon,—today” (W-pI.196.11:5). Once we see the monster within us as it is, we have both the motivation and the power to do something about it. We have the motivation because we see how undesirable it is: why would we want to hold on to something that wants to kill us? We have the power because once we have looked calmly at the ego without blinders, we can call upon the Holy Spirit to shine it away. It is nothing but an illusion dispelled by the healing light of forgiveness. Ultimately, this is the way that terrors like the abuses at Abu Graib are undone once and for all.


A forgiveness exercise: “We are the same.”

Close your eyes and bring to mind someone against whom you are holding a grievance—either someone involved in the Iraq prison scandal, or someone in your own life:

On the surface, this person is holding up a face of innocence. He sees himself as being unfairly attacked by the outside world. You see yourself the same way. You are the same. But this perception is not true. Neither of you is really unfairly attacked by the outside world. Now that you have looked calmly upon this false perception, you can let it go. And so be willing now to let go of the illusion of outer monsters attacking you.

Underneath the face of innocence, this person sees himself as a vicious ego that attacks others without provocation. You see yourself the same way. You are the same. But this perception is not true. Neither of you is really a vicious ego that attacks others without provocation. Now that you have looked calmly upon this false perception, you can let it go. And so be willing now to let go of the illusion of your inner monster attacking others.

Underneath the belief that he is a vicious ego that attack others, this person sees a terrifying murderer within him, plotting his own death. You see yourself the same way. You are the same. But this perception is not true. Neither of you is really threatened by a murderer within plotting your own death. Now that you have looked calmly upon this false perception, you can let it go. And so be willing now to let go of the illusion of the inner monster attacking you.

Underneath all these beliefs, this person is the holy Son of God, as you are. You are the same. This is the only true perception. Both of you are wholly free of illusions of any kind. There are no monsters anywhere. Now that you have let them go, you are free to embrace the truth of who you really are. And so, join with your brother now in celebration of the glorious truth forgiveness has revealed, saying together:

We are God’s Son, complete and healed and whole, shining in the reflection of His Love. In us is His creation sanctified and guaranteed eternal life. In us is love perfected, fear impossible, and joy established without opposite. We are the holy home of God Himself. We are the Heaven where His Love resides. We are His holy Sinlessness Itself, for in our purity abides His

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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