A lot has already been written on the Abu Ghraib torture pictures (and I use the word 'torture' quite deliberately, please see the WU above for more information). But this node will deal with the media's handling of the Abu Ghraib incidents. I will the use this to argue that there is an element of racism in all that has taken place so far, including the way the media has portrayed it. Before I do so, I also want to sound one further note of warning. The pictures that have emerged from the prison are sickening. But the problem is that Abu Ghraib is not the only detention centre in Iraq- there are others. It is still not known how prisoners in those camps have been treated, and till such time, there will always be speculation.
The media reaction, especially in the United States to the Abu Ghraib pictures was, quite naturally one of shock and disbelief. This was reflected in the statements made by family members of those accused, such as Private Lynndie England, whose friend made the following remarks to the Washington Post:
It just makes me laugh, because that's not Lynn," said Destiny Goin, 21, a friend. "She wouldn't pull a dog by its neck, let alone drag a human across a floor."
The common reaction from family members of the accused has been that their loved ones have been set up, and that they were 'merely following orders'. Hence, those to blame are higher up in the army hierarchy and a cover up is underway. All of this is quite plausible. But it doesn't answer the simple question: what kind of 'civilized' army would resort to these measures and then take photographs of it, and send it home, almost as (to use the words of one BBC1 newsreporter) 'mementoes'?
In dealing with Lynndie England (and her case stands out because she is a woman), the media has adopted one of two roles. Either she is an outright villain, a vicious 'sex sadist of Baghdad' as one South African newspaper put it, or she is a 'girl gone wrong'- as the Independent UK tried to argue- she is from small town America, a girl who wouldn't even shoot a deer, who has then performed these inexplicable acts. The theme is: it's not her, there's more to this than meets the eye, she's the fall girl. There are also the usual comparisons with Jessica Lynch, seen as the all-American heroine when she was rescued, although her story has been somewhat tarnished since then.
It seems to me that the argument, from every section of the media, including those who claim that the prison was 'unprofessionally run' (to quote the Washington Post), assume that there were 'institutional factors' behind what happened at Abu Ghraib. Why? Because it is much harder to stomach that their good all American boys and girls, would actually perpetuate this horror and humiliation of their own volition. So by humanizing the perpetrators, one is almost absolving them of guilt. Not only is this absurd, there are racist connotations to this that shall be tackled later.
Let's take two comments from two eminent news sources. First the Weekly Standard had this to say:
The prison guards were badly trained, we hear; they thought they were doing what the interrogators/contractors/CIA wanted them to do; they were cogs in a corrupt military machine. We might say something like that if we were being paid to defend these lowlifes. And, yes, there do seem to have been lamentable weaknesses in training and command.
I don't know about you, but I would think that what went on in Abu Ghraib is an example of a 'lack of humanity' not merely a lack of training or a lack of knowledge of the Geneva Convention. More interestingly, is the media suggesting that the soldiers in question need to be taught the Geneva Convention to know what they are doing is inhuman and immoral? Are these actions only immoral by the standards of war, or are they just so blantanly horrible that no standards of morality could be applied to them at all?
Then let's turn to the New York Times and to their claim:
But a more worrisome category of prisoners emerged from the widening insurgency in Iraq, as played out in the shootings, bombings and other attacks against American soldiers. More and more of those prisoners were filling the makeshift jails"
Aw shucks...what were these Amerian soldiers going to do? It's the prisoners fault after all...these evil Iraqis who insist on filling up jails and putting pressure on the prison system. After all, it's all a fall out of that, isn't it?
In their relentless focus on the perpetrators of the horrors at Abu Ghraib, and the occasional attempt to portray them as victims, the real victims have been forgotten. Almost no major newspaper report has tried to ask: who were these men and what are their stories? Only one man, Haider Sabbar Abed, a 36 year old from Baghdad has so far come forward to say that he was one of the men in the pictures and then proceeds to detail his torture. (Please refer to http://www.hindu.com/2004/05/08/stories/2004050802931600.htm for details). Again, the media focus on the perpetrators and the lack of attention on the victims, seems to suggest that again there is a process of de-humanizing. And this brings me to the important question: is this covertly racist?
Note that the perpetrators who have been paraded as victims by at least part of the media, were all white. More astonishingly for an army, that is 40% black, Hispanic or Native American, not a single soldier from any of these communities have been charged with these crimes. Which brings me back to my thesis: that there is above all, an element of racism in what has occurred. These were brown Iraqi men being tortured by white American soldiers. Why haven't I heard the word 'racism' being so far? And considering the fact that a number of those involved, served as prison guards back home- prisons known for their brutality, and for their overwhelmingly black inmates, again, are we saying that racism is not a factor?
These paragraphs from Ahdaf Soueif in the Guardian sums it all up neatly:
The acts in the photos being flashed across the networks would not have taken place but for the profound racism that infects the American and
British establishments. At squaddie level, Sarah Oliver reports in the Mail on Sunday that "the British soldiers loathe the dirtiness of Iraq and the native population's slothfulness, kleptomania and determination to do as little as possible for themselves". There have
been reports of US troops outside Falluja talking of the fun of being a sniper, of the different ways to kill people, of the "rat's nest" that needs cleaning out. Some will say soldiers will be soldiers. But that language has been used by neocons at the heart of the US administration; both Kenneth Adelman and Paul Wolfowitz have spoken of "snakes" and "draining the swamps" in the "uncivilised parts of the world".
The media in this country is politely shocked at photos of Iraqis being
tortured and humiliated by US and British soldiers. A BBC1 news
presenter says the pictures seem to have been "merely mementos".
That's all right,then. The folks at home will have a good laugh and
paste them into the family album. In the first half of the last
century, the French in Algeria and Morocco used to send home postcards
of prostitutes posing sullenly, with breasts bared and skirts pulled
up to their thighs, over captions like "Le harem Arabe" or "Fille
Mauresque". The Americans have pushed it further: their pornography of
occupation is at once more childish, playful, crude and sinister than
that of "old Europe". Also, we assume the prostitutes were paid. BBC
commentators and British politicians have been reminding us that the
soldiers' activities "do not compare with Saddam Hussein's systematic
tortures and executions". Hussein is now the moral compass of the
west. The media are fearful that these images will go down badly in the
Arab world because "they show Muslim men being humiliated by American
Again the not-so-subtle reduction of the Arab world to an entity that reacts only to religious prodding. A world that oppresses women, is full of 'kleptomaniacs', a 'dirty world' of 'dirty people- who are only humiliated because this offends their religion! After all, they're all religious fanatics, aren't they? Of course, it isn't remotely possible that the humiliation and the anger of the Arab world, is not a religious one- it is anger because an occupying army has tortured and sadistically humiliated their own- and that humiliation is not just linked to their religion but to their dignity and self worth as human beings. But of course, in a world where the media, often characterizes Arabs as only barely human, that's easy to forget isn't it? It's easy to forget (with much apologies to Shakespeare), that they have eyes, ears, and that they feel pain, humiliation and sorrow just as any white Amerian does?
One last point. What would America do if an occupying army tortured their civilians on American soil, and those pictures were broadcast all over the world? I haven't lived long on this planet, but my meagre experience tells me, that they would probably bomb them!
I've used a number of media sources for this node- the Guardian, the NYT and the WaPo in particular. There are enough media reports on the scandal floating around for me not to give you individual references. A Google search will reveal it all.
I have received a number of comments about the WU and I'm going to try and respond and incorporate some of those:
1. unperson says that my WU is too vitriolic and that I should reconsider some of the things I've said in the light of what happened yesterday. Well so here goes. Yesterday three things happened. We heard that an American, Nicholas Berg had been beheaded and the video of that posted on the net. Then, we heard that the British army, according to Amnesty International had shot and killed an 8 year old girl, without provocation. Finally we heard that there were more disturbing pictures emerging from Iraq, including this time, abuse and torture of female prisoners.
a) Let's take Berg's beheading first. Ghastly, grisly, and reprehensible. But nothing in my above WU says that I condone acts like this. I am not an apologist for terrorism in any form. I have my greatest sympathy for the Berg family, I am sickened by what they are having to endure, and I pray that some day they will be able to attain some peace of mind. The worst that can happen to a parent is to know that your child died in the utmost agony, and despite my agnosticism, I pray that the parents of Nicholas Berg are given all the strength they need to cope with this.
HOWEVER, this raises a good question. What happens if we capture a bunch of Iraqis who may/may not have killed Berg? Do we put them into Abu Ghraib and humiliate them, as in those pictures, or do we follow the due process of law, modified as it may be by war, but not including at any point torture of prisoners? Is that a fair enough?
So yes, I think Berg's killers need to be punished. And since I don't believe in the death penalty, may they be given life long imprisonment. But I refuse to change my views on how the Iraqi prisoners were treated on the basis of yesterday's murder. Nor will I advocate that Berg's killers be treated the same way, despite my revulsion.
b)Equally disturbing is the news that female prisoners at Abu Ghraib were molested and in one case raped, leading to the woman in question, allegedly named Noor, becoming pregnant. She has since disappeared. I find it astonishing that there is no clamour for the photographs and reports to be made public, no matter how distasteful, so that the truth could be revealed. I do not believe in crimes being functionally equivalent. I don't think that Berg's murder in any way lessens the horror of what has been going on inside Abu Ghraib. More importantly, I think we need to know now how women prisoners were treated, and we need the full story of what has been going on inside those interrogation cells.
2. Noung argued with me that the term 'racist' is perhaps really strong and seems to suggest, as Robert Fisk does that the entire Anglo-Saxon civilization is tainted by it. Umm...no. I don't think I ever say that do I? I am arguing that the American soldiers who took part in the crimes at Abu Ghraib were racist. Whether this was a pre-existing racism that allowed them to do what they did, or even motivated them, or whether it was racism born of a justification for the acts they committed (i.e. it's okay to do this to Iraqis) as Noung suggests might have been the case, I think it's racism anyway.
It's a hard one that- racism. Brings back lots of unpleasant memories. And if you're a good white man or woman, I can see why you would flinch at the use of the term and complain of generalization. But at the end of the day, I think the sooner we admit that race was a factor, (And as I told Noung, if 40% of the army is non-white, the statistical probability, according to Suvrat of none of the perpetrators being non white is a mere 2.7%. Surely that deserves some explanation) the earlier we can deal with incidents like this.
If you find it hard to believe that soldiers from your own army- boys and girls who lived next door could be racist (that I think is the hardest pill to swallow- these are people like us, surely they can't be racist, it must be a mistake or it must be the system), then go ahead and read some of the statements that both US/UK soldiers constantly make about Iraq and Iraqis. I've included one excerpt from the Mail on Sunday above, but there are plenty of others on the Web.
Finally, I think there is a need for justice to be done (am I old fashioned? Maybe). Justice for Nicholas Berg, for Hanan Saleh Matrud, and for those humiliated and tortured in Abu Ghraib. Let's not allow people to just blame systemic causes and get away with this. Because if you say that it's the system, or point to the Stanford Prison Experiment, all you are saying is that prisons and prison guards are bound to behave like that. We can't have humane prisons. I fear that's not true- maybe realistically you can't have a completely humane prison, after all imprisonment is to a degree traumatizing, but you can at least abide by a code of conduct. And thank you to Andrew Aguecheek for pointing out why the Stanford Prison Experiment analogy doesn't really work in the Abu Ghraib case, because in the experiment the prison guards were completely on their own, with no higher ups. Which means, that more than just the 7 or 8 who've been indicted for the Abu Ghraib incidents, there are others who need to be punished as well.