the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 May 6


Is a picture worth a thousand lives? The story of the abuse of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is indeed sickening, but primarily in that the coverage by the media and the outrage being exhibited have totally missed the point. US soldiers and other government officials were responsible for genuine torture in Abu Ghraib, but all anyone can talk about are the sensational photographs of naked prisoners in embarrassing positions. This is like watching the Zapruder film and being offended by Jackie Kennedy’s fashion sense.

It is only a matter of time, I fear, before some thoughtless critic throws the Abu Ghraib affair back at me as evidence that the invasion was morally and intellectually wrong. That would be a simplistic assertion by all means. But while it is frustrating that a worthy endeavor could be so easily discredited by transgressions so minor relative to the transgressions the endeavor actually redressed, I will admit to frustration as well that these transgressions happened at all. The same legitimate frustration is present in the words of Tony Blair. Blair has always been the most eloquent defender of the war, and among the most principled, articulating the moral reasons for deposing an inhuman tyrant in high-minded, yet sincere, oratory. His simple, common-man repudiation of apparent British (and, by implication, US) torture was therefore all the more powerful: “We went to Iraq to get rid of that sort of thing, not to do it.” Indeed. The statement makes two points. First, it expresses a genuine revulsion at the reported actions of the coalition troops. Second, it reminds us of the actual accomplishment that inadvertently led to these incidents.

But here, when I speak of transgressions, I am referring more to what was reported than what was depicted. It is crucial that we maintain a distinction between the threat and application of physical suffering on the one hand and the threat and application of emotional suffering on the other. Sticks and stones, as we say. I have always been offended by the cutesy reversal, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage.” Those who say this believe they have made a clever point; but I cannot imagine that if they themselves were faced with a choice between being called names and having their femurs snapped, they would gladly choose the latter. This is the provision of those who would have us feel sorry for ourselves whenever someone gives us a reason to be merely unhappy, while at the same time dismissing the physical pain of others for which there is no psychological defense.

An article in the New Yorker discusses with evident sympathy the backwardness and bigotry of much of Arab culture (which in practical terms means masculine Arab culture). Being forced to appear engaged in homosexual acts, as several prisoners were, is degrading because it deprives the individual of control over the disposition of its own body. But it should not be considered especially degrading just because the individual has a hatred for all things gay. We do not need the reminder that the Arab world (alas, not alone) is full of acidic prejudice against homosexuality, prejudice which is macho insecurity dressed up as religious doctrine. I have been humiliated on many occasions, and I am empathetically angry over these prisoners’ treatment; but as soon as I am asked to take into account the prisoners’ particular shame of looking gay, I stop listening.

A Middle East scholar is quoted describing this depiction as ‘torture’. What sort of Middle East scholar can think of nothing better for which to reserve the word? Even if he missed the full reports of US misconduct at Abu Ghraib, surely he was aware of Iraqi misconduct at Abu Ghraib, the sort of indescribable abuse that kept the Iraqi population terrorized for decades, that made any successful insurrection against Saddam virtually impossible, and thus made an outside intervention necessary. Real torture happens at official hands throughout the Middle East, and it is to Middle Eastern hands that the US assigns prisoners when it wants them tortured. But torture in the Middle East cannot be written off as some sort of Cold War or post-colonial excess. The region has produced a native culture of violence, based on sect, sex, race, and age, and virtually everything offered as an explanation for this violence is in fact an excuse. Regional rulers and all too many ordinary individuals are culpable for reasons that have nothing to do with colonization, superpower rivalry, poverty, or humiliation. These are persons who assault their fellow humans because of something for which they alone are responsible.

A far better Middle East scholar, the ever-insightful Fouad Ajami, has decried the “swap”, in which September 11 and Abu Ghraib are thrown into the balance and the two sides are declared even ― that is, that totalitarian Arab fanatics really have nothing left to atone for, since US soldiers stripped Arabs naked and took their pictures. He also correctly points out that totalitarian Arab fanatics, and countless ordinary fools throughout the Muslim world, do not need the justification for their hatred of the West that this incident does not really provide. They hate liberalism and modernity, they dream of a Taliban state from Morocco to Mindanao, and the (imperfect) efforts of Western elements to spare the innocent Muslims who want liberalism and modernity from medieval religious fanaticism are unwelcome to them for obvious reasons.

It is worth pondering how easy it is for humans to engage in this sort of behavior; it makes the power and endurance of régimes like Saddam’s less surprising. US soldiers can be fundamentally as thoughtless, on the whole, as the Arab street. The actions of some in Abu Ghraib are probably just a natural consequence of the sick human imagination coupled with a wartime, enemy-oriented mentality. Humans thankfully are fairly bad at killing for abstractions. To produce soldiers, humans must be taught that the individuals they are about to kill are individually despicable. This leads to the pervasive racial prejudice of war zones ― our soldiers are killing “Arabs”, or “Germans”, or something else that is easy to identify, rather than killing “individuals engaged in armed support of aggressive authoritarian ideology”, which is a better goal but not conducive to the necessary hatred. When they are interviewed on television, these soldiers speak well of serving the cause of ordinary Iraqis, but in private many of them think any Arab in custody must be guilty, and can be tortured and otherwise assaulted without remorse. The pornography was merely the evidence of their prejudice. And Western elements who led this intervention are guilty of sorry manipulation of their own rank and file for failing to provide them with the intellectual framework to distinguish between good Arabs and bad Arabs, or to adhere to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, which to be honest is not well respected or understood at home either. For that matter, in the US prison rape is generally considered as a legitimate part of the sentence, and has even become a national joke.

I myself have advocated selective humiliation of the most self-important of the world’s tyrants ― like Saddam ― as a deterrent against further tyranny. And if, if any of these prisoners are responsible for the atrocities that have been committed in Iraq by Iraqis and mostly against Iraqis before or after the fall of Saddam, I have no problem using their emotional insecurities against them, which is a far more tenable position, I think, than arguing that all humans are deserving of dignity, when some so clearly are not. But the argument is a great distraction in the first place. Far worse than a forced simulation of fellatio by unidentifiable prisoners is the actual torture of those prisoners, which few are mentioning, and far, far worse than that was the former activity in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq, which the explosion of anger at these pictures is designed ― designed ― to obscure. The guilt or at least complicity of these complainants in past atrocity and its proposed continuation is obvious if we can just tune out the noise they are making about the guilt of others. Saddam’s closing argument at his trial: “I had to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, because only so could I remain strong, and only by remaining strong could I and other Arab autocrats defend the proud Arab male against the unspeakable prospect of simulated fellatio. Every last death was necessary.” That may carry weight with certain proud Arab males whose worst fear is homophobia, but I have other ideas. Poison gas may destroy my nervous system and mechanical shredders may tear my living body to pieces, but simulated fellatio will never hurt me.


Original version


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford