The photos of decapitated hostages and the detainees in Abu Ghraib are in many ways the flip-sides of the same imperial coin: on the one side is the barbarity of the occupied and on the other is the barbarity of the occupier. They are both hideous examples of the capability of humans for cruelty but yet they are neither surprising nor are they isolated examples of depravity. Rather, these images depict in sickening clarity the natural result of one nation imposing its will on another. This is the price that always has been and always will be paid for Empire.
A society, such as ours, that defines itself by its humanity, respect for justice and recognition of human rights does not begin an occupation with such bestial cruelty but history teaches that, regardless of our piety at home, if we are to maintain an occupation abroad we must jettison some of those same principles by which we define ourselves. The domestic outrage that the Abu Ghraib images elicited in both America and her allies suggests that we, as a people, are neither prepared nor willing to accept the New American Century envisioned by the war’s architects in Washington.
There is an awful pattern apparent in recent events: “insurgents” kidnap a civilian member of the occupation; the kidnappers demand the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or the release of prisoners; when the demands are not met, the victim is killed — usually decapitated — and his killing video-taped or photographed for the benefit of their supporters and the rest of the world.
As the insurgency escalates — and with it attacks on American soldiers and civilians — so will demands for better intelligence about the resistance. As the insurgency grows so to does the demand that intelligence be forthcoming — and with it comes the pressure to use torture to extract this information. The more torture is employed against the civilian population, the more it builds resentment; and the more that popular resentment grows, the greater the resistance to occupation.
It’s a cycle of violence that has played out in human history for as long as one power has sought to impose its will by military force on another. The US used torture — water torture, maiming, dragging suspects by horses and setting alight — to maintain its occupation of the Philippines. The British used torture when faced by the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya. In the 1950s, the French became trapped in this same cycle as they struggled to retain control of Algeria. When faced with a popular resistance, they turned to torture to produce the intelligence that was needed to counter the uprising. Whatever cognitive dissonance may have existed in the heart of a nation that had signed the Geneva Convention and avowed a belief in human rights was salved by defining the government’s actions in Algeria as outside the usual strictures of international law.
That the murders in Saudi Arabia of American expatriates and the murders of foreign workers in Iraq are inextricably linked to American conduct in the region is undeniable. Nick Berg, Paul Johnson and Kim Sun-il were all dressed in the same orange jump-suits prior to being murdered. It is no coincidence that the outfits and colours chosen for their murders were the same colour and style as clothes worn by detainees in Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Throughout history, violence of the occupier begets more violence from the occupied. Once locked in this deadly embrace, it becomes impossible for either occupier or occupied to end the killing. In a world made smaller by the digital media and when faced with a people who identify themselves first and foremost as a religious community, America’s difficulties in Iraq do not stop at the borders — as the murder of Americans in Saudi Arabia shows.
Our outrage at the treatment of detainees in US-run prisons and our disgust at the sight of murdered civilians demonstrate our moral unprepardness for the horrors of extending American hegemony. History shows only two exit strategies: leave willingly or leave unwillingly. Until then, when confronted by the next example of torture or the next murdered Westerner, we should recall the words of the poet, W.H. Auden: “I and the public know, what all school children learn. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”.
AMIR BUTLER is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.