More Than a Ghraib Matter

The Indian writer, Saadat Hassan Manto, wrote a famous a short-story about the partition of India. Assets had to be divided up between the two new countries of India and Pakistan. In the story, bureaucrats at a mental asylum are busy separating the inmates into Indian and Pakistani mental patients. Manto makes one bureaucrat protest that an inmate his asylum has been assigned is of the wrong religion, and should be packed off across the border!

With that little twist of genius, Manto captures the tragedy of the partition — the idiocy of arguments within a nuthouse when when the nation itself had become one gigantic mental asylum.

Like Manto’s bureaucrat, we too appear to be missing the sad irony of our fate. Engrossed in the sub-plot of graphic physical abuse, we have been deluded into forgetting the bigger atrocity: the daily torture of the truth. If this succeeds, the magicians would have won. The technique, called misdirection, is used both by master illusionists and petty pickpockets. While your attention is riveted upon a little detail, the greater heist is carried out unnoticed.

I am not saying that the torture of Iraqi prisoners is no big deal. But I am saying it cannot be discussed in isolation, without considering the circumstances, any more than one would charge a thief for assault but argue that it was ok to break into the house.

The prisoners in Iraq were made to do grotesque acts. But how to explain the contortions performed daily by our government officials, senators and congressmen?

The same reason — an insane fear.

Like Manto’s India, a madness has gripped America after 9-11. Normally sane people have begun to do insane things:

In the name of fighting the enemies of freedom, Congress readily signed up to a Patriot Act which abridges our freedoms. Officials who are supposed to guard against executive excess vie with each other to defend it. Privacy is sacred to our government. It says showing flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers would violate privacy. Not sacred enough, though, to intrude on the privacy of the living — the same government wants to know all about our reading, movie viewing and other habits on the one hand, and taking away safeguards against arbitrary search and seizure on the other.

And if you ask Sen. John Kerry if he would abolish the Patriot Act, what do you think the ultimate contortionist will say? And after his answer, will you know whether he said yes or no?

Pity truth’s travails in the Age of Bush. She has been languishing in her own Abu Ghraib, assailed daily with no reprieve in sight. Long after the denizens of the real Abu Ghraib get their justice, she will still remain where she is, disfigured every day by the relentless lies and half-truths of our government and politicians.

If the song goes, Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive, the Bush Administration, aided by Democratic mumbling, bumbling and grumbling, has crafted an entire magic carpet.

First it raised an alarm about weapons of mass destruction and of imminent danger to our safety. Nothing there. Then, it was all about liberating the eagerly waiting Iraqi people. When the welcome committee was found bearing bombs rather than garlands, the theme became bringing Democrary to the Middle East, a project given an auspicious start by closing down a newspaper (not to mention several earlier attempts to silence Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya broadcasts). Now we were back to the Old Reliable — bringing human rights to Saddam’s Iraq. Even on the anniversary of his May 1 Mission Accomplished speech, President Bush explained that what he had meant by Mission Accomplished was that the Iraqi people were free of Saddam Hussain’s tyranny…[1]

…Only to fall into the hands of some worthy successors, the Abu Ghraib photographs seem to suggest.

That these travesties of the truth took place and were allowed to pass in plain daylight will remain an enigma to future historians. If allowed to go on they will damage us more completely than the mistreatment of a few prisoners.

Yet they are likely to continue.

The sad fact is that we are now a nation driven by images. If there had been no photograhs from Abu Ghraib, there would have been no outcry. But the Orwellian corruption of public discourse (to which Democrats like Kerry, with their vacuous phrases of ‘cannot cut and run’, and ‘staying the course’ have made their own unique contributions) is no less real, and is surely far more ruinous of our future. (Perhaps what would really wake us up is a time-lapse photograph to show our fate in a few decades.)

Still, some good can come out of Abu Ghraib. Air America Radio’s Randi Rhodes suggested yesterday that Bush should go to Iraq, to Abu Ghraib, and apologize to the Iraqi people.

It would be a grand gesture, more especially if he would also use the occasion to apologize to other countries which had suffered torture indirectly from the activities of the notorious School of the Americas.

We need not hold our breath, however — the specialty of this administration is the big lie rather than the grand gesture. This morning, when Rumsfeld was asked whether he would apologize for Abu Ghraib, he hemmed and hawed, and said nothing in the end. With its record of arrogance, an admission of fallibility to this administration would be as rain to a sandcastle.

Too bad, because piercing the cloud of insanity which has descended upon us demands speaking the truth both to ourselves and to those we have mistreated. The longer we persist in our lies and half-truths, the more difficult it will be to get back on track.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on He can be reached at


/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at