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Today is:
Lessons from Abu Ghraib and
the pictures that exposed it
By Kasia Kubin

There’s a myth that has been circulating for the past several decades that the US is the world’s source of democracy, freedom and justice. The idea is closely related to the economic wealth of the country, which in turn constitutes a second myth that people in the US magically and massively go from rags to riches. The third myth, which has persisted for centuries, says that wealth brings happiness. This third myth links the first two myths together: the US is the home of liberty and democracy and it is the wealthiest country on earth, which means that everyone there is necessarily happy. Things like sickness, poverty, and injustice do not take place on US soil, and Americans are far from the savage mentality that would allow a person to wage war, cheat, and torture. 

If there’s anything in the past century that can jerk people out of the semi-slumber that allows belief in such myths, it would be the pictures of abuses by US troops in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Whether following higher commands, or acting out racist ideas, or both, the point is that American soldiers committed human rights violations. The pictures of abuse in Abu Ghraib are shocking: human instinct evokes a sense of empathy with the level of indignity the Iraqi’s were made to suffer. The photographs’ impact is magnified, though, because they blatantly contradict the widely prevalent myths about the US. The irony of Coalition forces torturing Iraqi’s in the very same prison that was infamous for abuses under Hussein, the man the Coalition removed in the name of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” is easily overwhelming. 

And let’s be clear, the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was plainly torture; torture as in Pinochet in Chile, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier in Haiti, and Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I don’t mean to suggest that the violence and abuse is comparable, but merely to underline that it serious war crimes, repressive leadership and corruption are not limited to the “Third World.” It’s easier and more comfortable to associate torture with infamous dictators in backwards, poor countries, but the reality is that torture is a reality of war, it is a reality of power inequalities, and it is a reality of the US. More than just taking photographs of naked soldiers arranged into pyramids, US soldiers committed human rights violations through their psychological and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In a TV interview with one of the female soldiers captured in the photographs, the young woman was asked whether the pictures show the extent of abuse of Iraqi’s. Without hesitation, she responded that no, there were things done to Iraqi prisoners that were much worse than what was revealed in the circulated pictures. 

What is most shocking, however, is the degree to which US citizens have been surprised by the news. If everyone accepted the pictures as passively and apathetically as most people react to news about ethnic violence in various parts of the world, it might have been still more appalling. But the general surprise and horror suggests that Americans are as much if not more indoctrinated with the fantastic myths about the US than people in the rest of the world. Even without knowing that the US hosts the military School of the Americas where many Latin American dictators and military leaders received training in torture, or that US soldiers have used torture in the past, Vietnam being the most commonly known case, current debates about the war on terrorism should have already planted seeds of doubt about US integrity. For example, there has been general concern about the treatment of the nearly 600 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay for at least the past year, and the use of excessive force in Iraq has also raised criticism. The pictures of abuse of Iraqi’s should now serve as unmitigated evidence that the US is not immune to the corrupting capacity of power, and that the world is in dire need of ways to hold countries and their leaders, regardless of status or wealth, accountable for their actions. 

The effort to identify exactly who is responsible for the abuses has produced an inconclusive web of finger-pointing: subordinates claim they were following orders or that at least they were not directly participating, superiors blame the lack of a monitoring system, Rumsfeld himself was at pains to even articulate an apology and evaded demands for a clear explanation about what orders were given. The case of torture is in fact a most difficult problem to address meaningfully and humbly. To approach it in a responsible and conclusive way would require a holistic, deep analysis of the many problems and practices that are commonly accepted in the US: from the death penalty, to negative stereotyping; from military training to media practice; from the quality of public school education to racism; from poverty to the welfare state. The fact is that in order for those responsible to be held accountable, the public needs more and better information, both in their knowledge of different cultures and countries and in their awareness about current events; which requires an improved education system and media practice; which requires more investment in basic support and services for those who are not flourishing through the system as it is now structured. 

The chance to consider the causes and consequences of the use of torture in Abu Ghraib has already been betrayed. Shortly after the prison abuse pictures exploded into popular media, a video of the beheading of the American, Nicholas Berg, by extremists was quickly disbursed throughout the world. Rather than analyzing the links between the two events, the general response was disappointingly shortsighted. Those responsible for the killing were quickly labeled savages in a flurry of misinformed stereotyping that has been characteristic of reporting and rhetoric about the war, easily confusing Islam with terrorism, and Iraqi’s with Al-Qaeda. The sequence of the two events, however, was significant and afforded the opportunity to analyze the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism, and American military policies.  

In fact, it has already been suggested by some Coalition soldiers in Iraq that the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners is in part (perhaps even in a large part), the reason for the degree of opposition that the Coalition is facing in the country. Officially, the US has consistently reduced the violent or antipathetic attitudes toward, and treatment of Americans by Iraqi’s to “uncoordinated opposition”, or to local rebels in this or that city (like Falluja, for example), or more broadly to the “clash” between the West and Islam. The recent exposure of US human rights violations in Iraq should foster a more realistic perception of what is happening: a) that resistance to the US is not random, unjustified, and produced by resentful Islamic fundamentalists on an archaic religious crusade but by normal people who are reacting to real threats from the US; b) that the violent resistance to the US is but a small part of the people who justifiably want to see a change of behavior and strategy by the US in Iraq; and that c) the war is not over. 

In other words, the killing of Berg should have been placed in the context of US abuse of Iraqi’s. It should have intensified the concern about US treatment of prisoners, and encouraged the idea that, just maybe, US actions since 2001 have indeed created a more polarized and dangerous world, as Amnesty International recently reported. Already, the release of the photographs has empowered victims of similar abuses in Afghanistan to bear witness to US crimes against humanity. In this sense, the torture of Iraqi’s by US soldiers will have far-reaching consequences, which we can ignore by sticking to old-fashioned and inappropriate rhetoric and behaviors, or which we can actively influence by fearlessly and responsibly responding to the many problems that the pictures exposed. It may be more comfortable to conform to mythical illusions, but the longer we do so, the more painful it will be to confront reality when the time comes. 

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