The hooded figure stands Christ-like, arms out, frozen in place by the snaking wires that he was told would kill him if his bare feet left the small box on which he is poised. Chosen for publicity because his nakedness is actually covered with some filthy rag, he is emblazoned on every newspaper in the world. Other photos are worse: a mound of naked men, obscenely intertwined for laughing torturers; leering American soldiers pointing imaginary weapons at prisoners’ genitals. And those not published are even worse: men forced to simulate sex acts with each other, or to masturbate before their guards. Staring at these images, an entire aghast international community recalls dehumanizations pursued by the worst regimes in history. Arab-Muslim sensitivities to nakedness give these scenes-flanked by the leering female US soldier-an additional dimension of shame and horror. But what exactly does this faceless man symbolize-besides the moral rot filtering through the foundations of the US occupation?
The whole package of abuse in Abu Ghuraib Prison is being soothingly denounced by US generals and the Bush administration as an “aberration.” Hence we have just one mealy line from Bush: that he is “deeply offended” but certain that “this is not who we are”-as though we have been attacked by outsiders. For admitting that the US occupation truly commanded these things would instantly discredit our claim to bring enlightenment to the benighted Arab world. Worse, admitting that what we do is part of who we are would undermine Bush’s divinely charged vision in our inherent cultural superiority, which-in his colonial mind-legitimizes our grant mission to enlighten the world. But in posturing this indignant denial, the Bush administration is lying, again. They knew, months ago, that trouble was up. And they knew that it went deeper than the few soldiers in these photos, now being scape-goated.
The US crimes in Abu Ghuraib Prison were not at all aberrant. For one thing, torture and abuse of prisoners has been happening at US detention centers all over Iraq, and were happening while General Kimmitt-who knew about them months ago-angrily affirmed to journalists and the US public the fine upstanding character of the US military. More importantly, as Seymour Hersh has recently exposed, the actions of these grinning soldiers reflected their obedience to orders by the intelligence services, and implemented partly by private contractors, to use shame and terror on random prisoners in the hope of extracting information. The rot did not stem from a few young soldiers left to their own devices; it was embedded in an occupation ill-designed, poorly run, and poorly supervised, which allowed a hidden intelligence process to spin wildly away from the laws of war and violate all moral standards shared by the international community.
Nor is that program itself aberrant, a peculiar twist of criminal behavior arising from a hidden intelligence apparatus. Sloppy supervising, insufficient staffing and inexperienced soldiers have been generating a whole host of country-wide abuses, documented and denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which are heavily responsible for that rising Iraqi anger and hatred which the Bush administration tries to blame on “foreign agitators” and al-Qaida. Thousands of suspects are being held without trial, suspects are routinely beaten, soldiers shoot civilians-accidentally, or accidentally-on-purpose-with impunity at checkpoints, in searches, and in firefights. The lack of rules-or enforcement of rules, or knowledge or respect of the rules of war-is endemic. The whole Iraq theater is collapsing in a lethal interplay of US arrogance and incompetence, ad-hoc decision-making steered by hard-line logics, and a casual disdain for international standards which leaves the military rudderless in Fallujah and Najaf. The plumes of flame rising from Fallujah indicate a military in charge of itself; thrashing efforts to disengage-an old Saddam-era general briefly resurrected and as quickly cast aside-reveal the US government as a headless octopus. Long lost is the old adage that war is too important to be left to the generals: there is no civilian authority-i.e., a capable president-containing them.
The US population has been dangerously insulated from the crimes in Iraq, and remains insulated by top-level denial that these latest terrible photos signal anything substantial about the occupation. In an especially insidious twist, the Bush administration has been playing on Vietnam syndrome in holding any critical regard of our soldiers as unpatriotic: consequently, the media and much of the country has absorbed a collective decision to lavish only praise, to “support our fine men and women” who are doing a “fabulous job” and “deserve our support.” Yet that ethos, generous in spirit, has translated into a wall of silence which has fostered rampant ignorance about Iraqi-civilian suffering at US hands and the implications of these abuses for the US role, and has forestalled any sober collective effort to correct them. Hence the relatively muted US response to these dreadful photos reflects a great national confusion and in-drawing of breath, as the population is confronted by photos which are, to many sheltered people, so unexplainable, and whose very discussion has no moral standing in the current national climate-except to reject as an aberration.
Instead of absorbing that a moral rot pervades the occupation, the US population is therefore likely to find baffling, extremist or even absurd the scandalized reactions of the Arab world and in Europe, for whom the photos are the US occupation’s moral death-knell. For of course, as an aberration, these crimes imply nothing about our larger mission and certainly not our culture, right? The irony here is that, if these photos had instead portrayed American soldiers abused in some Arab prison, screaming right-wing US media would have waved them as substantiating every racist claim of inherent Arab depravity. On Fox News, ranks of flunky intellectuals would have soberly propounded the social-psychological violence inherent in Muslim theology and the “Arab mind”; tears of patriotic passion would have celebrated US military might as the golden force opposing the dark ferocity of the savage Arab masses. Feeble liberal protest-that it is wrong to extrapolate from one prison policy to a whole culture-would have been derided and silenced. And high-minded speeches would have emerged from the White House, mustering US patriotic zeal to combat these forces of evil which produced such an outrage. Yet when others launch similar stereotyping distortions of us, we claim the high ground: those ignorant savage Arabs, we sneer, with no conception of our culture. How gullible and backward they are, to fail to grasp the truth and be so enflamed. It must be al-Jazeera’s fault.
This scandal itself, however, does present an opportunity stemming from one genuine difference between the old and new regimes in Iraq. The photos are glaringly reminiscent of practices under Saddam Hussein, but the publicity is not. It was US soldiers who gamboled around naked terrified prisoners and snapped pictures of their own broad grins; it was other soldiers who were able to leak the photos to press outlets quick to print them and engage a horrified international community. Seymour Hersh has put the pieces together; the fuller story is coming out. Human progress is defined by such shaky remedial measures to limit barbarism, and, for all their hypocrisy and self-delusions, the Western democracies can be recognized for their weak and flawed struggles toward confronting their own repeated failures.
Let this revelation impel one of those nobler collective efforts; let the wall of silence fall.
VIRGINIA TILLEY is an Associate Professor of Political Science
at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org