Monday, April 28, 2014

Ten years ago; the Abu Ghraib photos

Today marks one decade since Americans first saw photos [warning: graphic images] of the disgusting and abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  It was on April 28, 2004 that CBS broadcast graphic photos taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing blood-covered prisoners, forced simulation of masturbation and oral sex, the stacking of naked prisoners with bags over their heads, mock electrocution by a wire connected to a man's genitals, guard dogs on the verge of ripping into naked men, and grinning U.S. male and female soldiers celebrating the degradation. Three days later, the New Yorker, in an exposé by Seymour Hersh, published extracts from a March 2004 report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that catalogued U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, including "breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."


The real atrocity of Abu Ghraib, though, was the response of the military and political leadership, which basically consisted of four actions:

  1. Immediate denial of the truth
  2. Attempts to cover up the truth
  3. Blaming it all on a few powerless low-ranking soldiers ("a few bad apples")
  4. Exploitation of patriotism, blind loyalty, and reflexive servility to get Americans to ignore the facts

In short, America's military and political leaders chose to rely on the American people to demonstrate the same consistent weakness of character and moral cowardice that characterized that decade. They counted on it.

In May 2004, one lone US Congressman stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and objected vehemently to a resolution introduced in that House, in the wake of the release of the Abu Ghraib abuse photos.  That resolution, to which he stood alone to oppose, condemned the abuse of prisoners in Iraq while adding "an enthusiastic endorsement of our nation-building activities in Iraq."  That US Congressman was ignored. I bet you know his name.  He and Major General Anthony Taguba (whose career was destroyed because he tried to reveal the truth) are the only two high-ranking American leaders who demonstrated any real conscience or character at the time. Remember?

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, particularly after all the reasons given by the Bush Administration were revealed to be lies, was just as bad as the torture, and resulted in far more civilian deaths (100,000+) and should have been just as forcefully condemned.  It wasn't, of course, to the shame of the nation. Congress pretended to be incensed at the atrocities of a few "bad apples", but completely failed to take responsibility for the results of the US invasion of that tiny, defenseless nation.

Ah, but for a very long time Americans were able to maintain the illusion that they were more morally righteous than the rest of the world.  If it was an illusion, it was a also a priceless asset.  And it was given away for nothing. Americans traded something invaluable for a handful of magic beans.

Let me tell you something. When the choice mattered most, Americans did not choose the high moral ground.   Essentially, just like their Congress, most Americans publicly "regretted" the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib while enthusiastically endorsing the "nation-building activities in Iraq."

The moral emptiness of the nation was exposed to the entire world.  And you may have forgotten those photos, but the targeted people have not, and will not, ever.

Cover of the UK Economist, issue date May 8, 2004