Some various follow-up thoughts on the Iraq prison scandal:
* A reader was wondering what I thought about the comparison (made in this commentary in the NYT by Luc Sante) of how the soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison appear more or less like the white folk in pictures from the first part of the 20th century — the ones in which they’ve lynched a black man:
In photographs that were taken and often printed as postcards in the American heartland in the first four decades of the 20th century, black men are shown hanging from trees or light fixtures or maybe being burned alive, while below them white people are laughing and pointing for the benefit of the camera. There are some pictures of whites being lynched, too, but these tend not to feature the holiday crowd. Often the spectators at lynchings of African-Americans are so effusive in their mugging that they all seem to be vying for credit. Before seeing such pictures you might expect the faces in them to express some kind of collective rage; instead the mood is giddy, often verging on hysterical, with a distinct sexual undercurrent.
Sante goes on to make the point that “a fundamental lack of respect for the enemy’s body becomes an issue only when the enemy is perceived as being of another race.” I don’t know that I buy this last assertion, which strikes me as too easy a formulation, unless Sante means “another race” as meaning “not human at all.” Which he doesn’t, but which for me makes sense. I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the soldiers of Abu Ghraib dehumanized their charges to the point that they were able to do whatever they felt like doing.
I do think there’s a significant difference between the lynching photos Sante references and the photos from Abu Ghraib, although I leave it people with more time for meta analysis to consider. And that is that the lynching photographs tended to be entirely posed (nighttime photography was no small thing in the 1920s). A lot of the Abu Ghraib photos I’ve seen are of posed scenes (particularly the scenes of sexual humiliation), but the photographs themselves have all the hallmarks of the digital camera era: they have a casual snapshot feel to them. The lynchers formalized their moments of atrocity, but the Abu Ghraib picture takers took photos more opportunistically; I suspect partially because they could (you never run out of film in a digital camera), and partly because it’s this generation’s film vocabulary. Again, what it means, I’m not entirely sure.
I’m hesitant to directly equate the soldiers in the pictures to the people who lynched other Americans. There’s no doubt the lynchers were on the wrong side of the law no matter how you slice it; while I believe the soldiers at Abu Ghraib did morally repugnant things, it’s not clear how much was their own initiative and how much was ordered from above. There’s an ethical grey area there which deserves further examination. One thing I do find to be an exact analogue: Just as lynchers sometimes made their pictures into postcards, some of these soldiers made their pictures into screensavers.
* I doubt very seriously that the murder of Nicholas Berg was related to the Abu Ghraib prison events in any sense other than opportunistically, i.e., this particular cadre of terrorists saw it as a way to get more publicity for something they were going to do anyway. Also, beheading an American and putting the tape up on the Web shows these guys have a complete lack of understanding of the American psyche. They figured they could ride the wave of disgust to make their point and compound American doubt about our presence in Iraq, but for the average American this goes a long way to counteract the events of Abu Ghraib. The average American, I suspect, values one American life more than an entire prison full of Iraqs who, to use dumbass Senator Inhofe’s words, “are not there for traffic violations” (even if some of those in the prison apparently aren’t there for any particularly good reason at all). In other words, if you want to make the average American feel better about Abu Ghraib, beheading a civilian American who had nothing to do with it and claiming the act as retaliation is just about the perfect way to do it.
* Back to Inhofe: What a moron. The best counteraction for Inhofe speaking directly from his anus comes from Senator Lindsey Graham, who said: “When you are the good guys, you’ve got to act like the good guys.” This is exactly right. How we treat prisoners is not a reflection of what the prisoners “deserve,” it’s a reflection of who we see ourselves as being, and I don’t want our nation to be what Inhofe is willing to settle for it being. I expect better.
* Aside from Inhofe’s gaseous emanations of stupidity, I do think the response on Capitol Hill has largely been correct so far. This is a serious issue that goes to the core of the success of the mission in Iraq; it needs to be taken seriously and it needs to be corrected. It’s going to be extremely difficult to overcome, but I think some amount of genuine and public examination and self-flagellation is useful for us and useful for the rest of the world to see. Useful for us in that it allows us to correct our course and have a dialogue on what the hell is actually going on in Iraq — a dialogue worth having again and again, for roughly the same amount of time that we are in Iraq. Useful for the rest of the world because it shows the part of the American political character that wants get to the bottom of a problem rather than dismiss it or minimize it. It won’t matter to the people who genuinely hate the US, quite obviously, but it’ll go some way to keeping most other people from total despair.
It would have been better not to have this discussion at all and to have had our prisons in Iraq run competently. But there’s no point in going over what would have been better. In the world right now, I think we’re doing okay dealing with the aftermath. Congressionally speaking, in any event. Don’t get me started on the Executive branch.