A breach of law at Abu Ghraib [Archives:2004/738/Opinion]

May 17 2004

By Jane Novak*
For the Yemen Times

In Iraq, the US strives to implement the idea that pluralism and equality among humans is correct and that states are obligated to provide protections to all their citizens. The foundations of democracy include an unmolested media, a robust civil society, and majority affirmation of minority rights. The abuses at Abu Ghraib demonstrate that a just society also depends on the rule of law.
The international anger generated by the photos of prisoner pyramids is linked in part to the identity of the perpetrators, US soldiers, and the audacity necessary to both preach and torture. Another global response is glee at American shame. Anti-American sentiments have been reinforced and hostility vindicated. Some laud America's vigorous commitment to human dignity. Others see a double standard, the tyranny of power and a campaign against Muslims. Few opinions have changed.
American women have been defined by a woman leading a naked man on a leash. The persona of the American woman has stepped beyond Baywatch slut to pornographically sadistic bitch. There are no more good wives in America, no longer any loving mothers: one female soldier devoid of dignity has made them all disappear.
The incident is also taken as another reason not to support Iraq. The Iraqis have become symbolic and their suffering necessary to prove a point. The blood of American soldiers and Iraqi police, shed for Iraq and for humanity, has been defiled at Abu Ghraib. “They did not mistreat me in general,” one of the victims, Hyader Sabber Abd, told the New York Times. All the other guards, who he reported were “nice and good people,” are now labeled sadists. The coalition is not expected to grow.
Some Middle Eastern writers have noted if the standard applied by President Bush was applied by all heads of state, a long line of leaders would need to appear, each with a litany of apologies. “Arabs-might reflect on…what it says about their own systems, where such images could only be glimpsed over the carcass of an overthrown regime,” notes Michael Young in the Daily Star. For others, outrage is directed at the media's silence about torture regularly meted out in other prisons. Kamil Al-Saadoon writing in Sotaliraq believes the Americans prisoners are the lucky ones because “the Arab press becomes full of coverage about them and Arab leaders rush to condemn their treatment.”
United States, as a nation, is furious: according to a recent Washington Times Poll, 90 percent of Americans are concerned, upset or angry about the abuse of Iraqi detainees. Comparison to the standards of other nations is not made. Nor has the American reflex been to seek justification in the identity of the prisoners as murderers of Iraqis and US troops. Had it been Saddam on a leash, the violation of basic norms would have been as unacceptable. Neither the goal of gathering information nor the immolation of civilian contractors in Fallujah is seen as justification for the degradation of the Iraqi prisoners. Zarqawi's beheading of an American hostage has not elicited calls for vengeance in kind but has strengthened the determination not to descend into barbarism. The small number of American criminals has not blunted American outrage at the system that permitted their actions.
America now understands humiliation. It is not the humiliation of defeat but that of a brutal victor. The complacency and innocence of American self-perception has taken another hit. The cruel behavior toward these detainees has made the accusations of jingoism and arrogance more biting. Accountability and the double standard are both unquestioningly accepted.
The self-flagellation of the US government is broadcast by the US media and legitimized by the US public. Demands by the citizenry, the media, the military, the executive and legislative branches have brought numerous investigation of both the individuals and the system. “People will be brought to justice,” President Bush has told the world.
The inability of Iraqi detainees to gain family access and the lack of due process are being questioned. The limitation of detainee rights is getting a hard look, as is the treatment of all US prisoners. These actions, more than apologies, have redeemed some American dignity as will the trials and reforms.
At Abu Ghraib, evil showed an American face. It is the same evil the US is bleeding to oppose in the War on Terror: the evil that some are less, that all are not equal, that a shared humanity is not the primary identity. The myth of liberal values alone as a defense against corruption has been dispelled. All societies have criminals. Without the enforcement of law, regard for human life can diminish to the point that men become toys.
Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba told the Senate Armed Services Committee that in his investigation he has documented a “failure in leadership – from
the brigade commander on down” at Abu Ghraib. He also cited the lack of training and supervision at the prison. “I believe that they did it on their own volition,” the General noted. “We didn't find any order whatsoever – written or otherwise, that directed them to do what they did.” The breach of law is made more egregious when committed by those sworn to uphold it.
In the last fifty years the US has codified and implemented functional equality among various domestic groups; abuses and discrimination still occur and are vigorously prosecuted. The importance of humane standards, deviated from in a prison in Iraq, has been loudly reaffirmed by the US. America has changed for the better, as it has many times before, because it has disgusted itself. The path to a more perfect union runs through Abu Ghraib.

*Jane Novak is an American journalist.