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Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 17:307314 Copyright # 2005 Taylor & Francis LLC ISSN 1040-2659 print;

1469-9982 online DOI: 10.1080/14631370500333047

The Scandal of Abu Ghraib


TOM ROCKMORE

The events recently described concerning Abu Ghraib prison are continuous with but cast a new light on the so-called American war on terror. It is as if a window had been opened on a pattern of behavior that was not apparent when 9/11 occurred, and whose contours, lessons, and consequences are still in the process of emerging. Abu Ghraib is a notorious Iraqi prison located 20 miles west of Baghdad which, during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, held some 50,000 Iraqi prisoners in the most appalling conditions. To the surprise of many people, similar, although not identical, conditions seem to have been reproduced during the U.S. occupation of that country. he American abuses at Abu Ghraib initially came to light in large part through a series of articles written by Seymour M. Hersh, the well-known investigative reporter, the same man who many years earlier also broke the story of My Lai. In the initial article, entitled Torture at Abu Ghraib, Hersh documented the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers and raised the important question, which has still not been answered: How far does the responsibility go? In fact, the deplorable situation at Abu Ghraib was partially known earlier. On January 13, 2004, Joseph Darby, a reservist in the military police, alerted his superiors of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. On January 16, 2004, the U.S. Central Command announced that an investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a coalition forces detention facility. As a result of that investigation, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who commanded the prison, was quietly suspended and then replaced by Major General Geoffrey Miller. According to the report, written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba, and which Hersh cites, from October to December 2003 there were, in his words, numerous instances of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses at Abu Ghraib. Hershs article appeared less than a week after CBS 60 minutes II aired photographs showing hooded, naked prisoners being forced to engage in simulated sexual acts. The network delayed broadcasting the images for two weeks

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at the request of top military ofcials. On May 6, after The Washington Post published new photos from the prison, including one showing a woman soldier holding a leash tied around the neck of a naked man, calls for Donald Rumsfelds resignation intensied, and Bush apologized during a news conference. On May 7, during an appearance before Congress, Rumsfeld offered his deepest apology while declining to resign. On August 30, President George W. Bush expressed deep disgust and Tony Blairs spokesman said he was appalled. What is currently known about the situation at Abu Ghraib suggests a series of different, but not unrelated, questions. One is the obvious need for a fuller picture of what really happened and, for all we know, may still be happening at Abu Ghraib prison and in other Iraqi prisons under American control. The U.S. Army has a vested interest in putting absolutely the best face on the very controversial occupation of Iraq, an occupation that is continuing under different rules and in different form after the so-called cession of power to an Iraqi interim government in June 2005. In view of the importance of not allowing a full and accurate story of the events to become public, it is at least reasonable to assume that the public does not now have more than a partial picture of events and that there are a great many details that will probably never be known except with an inordinate measure of luck on the part of investigators. The fact that anything is known at all is itself due to the lucky fact that a low-ranking soldier, Joseph Darby, had the courage and the conviction to come forward. A second set of issues is raised by Hershs query about who is ultimately responsible. That specic question may be hard to answer because the current Army approach is to prosecute a series of low-ranking soldiers while claiming they were in no way typical of policy. This question is obviously very important, because it is crucial to know whether this is merely, as the Army pretends, no more than a series of isolated incidents, inconsistent with U.S. aims and practices, or whether, as seems more likely, what happened at Abu Ghraib and what may still be happening elsewhere, is consistent with, in fact an expression of, views held at the highest level of the current administration. It is already known that an extensive photographic record, including lms and CDs, exist. By mid-May, some 1,800 photographs had come to light. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely that low-ranking men and women would have created this kind of documentation if there had been the least suspicion that the incidents themselves in any way contradicted Army policy. It is more likely that they documented what they were doing because they believed they were faithfully adhering to that policy. It is plausible that the seven soldiers, who have so far been charged and General Karpinski, who has been disciplined, are being made scapegoats

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for those (such as Rumsfeld) whose importance and power make it difcult to call them to account. lthough we may never know, or never fully know, what happened at Abu Ghraib during the American occupation of Iraq, now at a time when attention has already shifted to other matters it is not too early to highlight some of the lessons and consequences that will likely emerge from it. One very obvious lesson concerns the importance of the press to the maintenance of a democratic society. The Bush administration, beginning with 9/11, if not earlier, went out of its way to impede the normal ow of information about the so-called war on terror. During the war in Iraq, the result of embedding reporters in ghting units was a means to control the ow of information. It is only because at least some investigative journalism was still possible that the story of Abu Ghraib was eventually revealed. By now the scandal over the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has largely subsided. Scapegoats have been found to go before the courts; public apologies have been made, and ofcials have provided remorseful testimony before Congress in order to create the impression of sincere concern while deecting attention from the situation. Although the military can draw the lesson that there should be no more pictures, the systematic mistreatment, torture, and assassination of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was in all likelihood neither an accident, nor conned to that Iraqi prison, nor even conned to Iraq. It is known that similar things have been happening in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners released from the U.S. prison camp at Guatanamo Bay have continually complained of various kinds of mistreatment. Mistreatment of prisoners neither started nor ended at Abu Ghraib. There is good reason to think it occurred during and after the war in Afghanistan and that it is a continuing practice at the U.S. base where prisoners are currently being held in violation of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, and U.S. law, for indenite periods without being charged. The Supreme Court appointed President Bush, and has been generally supportive of his efforts to limit human rights, peaking with the passage of the Patriot Act. Yet even the Court nally balked at the outrageous Bush administration practice of outing even the semblance of the rule of law by indenitely holding supposed enemy combatants captured outside as well as in the United States in a state of legal limbo without being charged. Prisoners who are now being released from Guantanamo have often complained of various forms of mistreatment, such as drugging, sleep deprivation, systematic beatings, and so on. If one looks away from the occasional sadist, present throughout the population, there is a well-entrenched view in

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military circles that with enough mistreatment even the toughest prisoner can be brought to provide useful information. This view is a clear motivating factor behind the mistreatment, including torture, and on occasion even death, on the theory that inicting punishment on prisoners allows their captors to gain an advantage they would not otherwise have. Yet the assumption that mistreating prisoners usefully leads them to reveal the hidden truth is profoundly mistaken. It rather leads them to say anything one wants to hear, that is, anything at all to stop the punishment, which is indistinguishable in such conditions from a truthful response. Mistreatment at Abu Ghraib was part of a larger miscalculation that it would go unnoticed or, if noticed, that it would be tolerated as a necessary price to preserve what can euphemistically be called the American way of life. This is an example of one more miscalculation on the part of an administration that regards itself as the source of goodness, justice, and democracy in the world, which it inconsistently strives to achieve by means clearly incompatible with these aims. Although the Bush administration still claims that what happened at Abu Ghraib is an accident, no more than a failure of oversight, the facts now known suggest careful planning. A now famous memorandum prepared for Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, dated August 1, 2002, reviews the standards of conduct for interrogation under 18 U. S. C. 2340-2340A, in the context of interrogations outside the United States. Gonzalez concludes that although 2340A proscribes certain acts of an extreme nature, there are numerous possible defenses that would negate any claim that certain interrogation methods violates the statute. There is obviously no need to study legal defenses against torture unless one is thinking about engaging in it with full awareness of possible consequences. The idea that the United States can do this in a way that is immune to legal challenge is fully consistent with the effort to secure legal immunity for any acts committed by American soldiers anywhere in the world during the war on terrorism. The concern to carry out torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere without legal risk is further apparent in The Working Group Report on Detainee Interrogations in the Global War on Terrorism: Assessment of Legal, Historical, Policy and Operational Considerations, dated March 6, 2003. The report, which was classied by Secretary Rumsfeld, but made public by The Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin, again shows that the Bush administration lawyers were part of the structure specically created to employ very rough tactics whenever deemed necessary against those deemed to be terrorists, that is, virtually anyone at any time, in arguing that compliance with international treaties and U.S. law prohibiting terrorism could be overlooked by virtue of legal technicalities and national security needs.

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he Bush administration takes a strongly dichotomous, religiously based view of its role in the world. The exposure of what went on at Abu Ghraib effectively discredited that pose in a way that probably cannot be recovered in the foreseeable future, perhaps not in our lifetimes. The religious theme in American life, already noticed by de Tocqueville in the eighteenth century, is strongly linked to the Bush administration. The president is a born-again Christian who, since his fathers 1988 campaign, has steadily mixed religion and politics. As governor of Texas, Bush worked to change the relationship between church and state, and as a presidential candidate he actively courted the evangelical vote. As president, his very rst executive order established an ofce to promote religious groups, which immediately ignited a controversy over the relationship between religion and government. After 9/11, Bush has consistently addressed the nation in religious tones, painting the situation as a conict between biblical themes of good and evil, with himself, his administration, and the U.S. representing Gods will. Bushs turn to religion provides a specically religious variation on a familiar but pernicious American myth, which is restated and then quickly exposed in each generation. The myth, which is not new, but extends back to the founding of the Republic, consists in the view that the United States has long been and is still now the worlds main or even only real source of democracy, freedom, and justice. Even before the United States was founded, this myth was effectively linked to economic prosperity through Adam Smiths famous appeal to the invisible hand. In a new variation on an old theme, it has now been effectively linked to religion, more specically to evangelical Christianity, through the emergence of an increasingly assertive religious right that has found its champion in the younger Bush. In the 1960s, this myth was an operative factor in the war in Vietnam, which, like the war in Iraq, shared in what Senator J. W. Fulbright, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously called the arrogance of power. In his book of the same name, Fulbright attacked the wars justication, the failure of elected ofcials to inform themselves about or set clear limits to the war, and the dangerous, delusional, selfserving and error-ridden thinking that led to it. In the 1960s, the nation plunged into war on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which was voted by a unanimous House of Representatives and all but two senators on August 7, 1964 in response to an incident that may never have taken place. Although the Bush administration presents the so-called war on terrorism as the most important conict since the Second World War, the link to Iraq seems to exist only in the minds of the members of Bushs staff, many of whom came to power with the idea of what is euphemistically called regime change in that country. According to a recent article in

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The New York Times, the entire claim that at the time of the U.S. invasion Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, or other weapons, was based on the testimony of a single Arab prisoner in U.S. custodytestimony he has since retracted. Some four decades ago, in the depths of the war in Vietnam, the entire conict was suddenly and forever focused by the massacre of 347 Vietnamese civilians at a tiny hamlet called My Lai. Lieutenant William Calley, who led the troops at My Lai, was sent to prison and later pardoned; he has since been forgotten. But the world has not forgotten what he and his soldiers brought about in that Vietnamese hamlet. The incident at My Lai exposed the lies of the Johnson administration in a way more vivid and effective than the intellectual dissection of its awed justication at the hands of Fulbright and other critics of that war. As My Lai was for an earlier generation during another war, Abu Ghraib is certainly not the last, perhaps not even the worst abuse during the Iraq war. The most arrogant abuse of power is certainly the decision to go to war with Iraq merely because some members of the Bush administration wanted to do so. Yet very much like My Lai, for a short but brilliant moment the revelation of what occurred at Abu Ghraib caught the attention of the United States and the entire world. In a dening instant, a pattern that had until that time been emerging piecemeal became increasingly clear day after day. Suddenly, in what seems in retrospect no more than a single moment, in an ongoing process of governmental deceit about fairly base motives (such as the appropriation of Iraqi oil for American companies), cloaked in noble rhetoric and pronounced in ringing tones, the lies underlying the entire conict about the danger to the American democratic way of life and to the free world, were forever exposed. here is a lot more continuity than discontinuity in political, economic, and military events, which constitute historical processes that can in fact be known. One is struck by the continuity between all the My Lais and the Abu Ghraibs that are strewn throughout world history. The terrorist attacks known as 9/11 are certainly unfamiliar, but the U.S. comportment in respect to weaker nations in this and other circumstances is all too familiar. It is another instance of the ancient adage, illustrated by the behavior of the Athenians and the Melians more than two millenia ago, in one of recorded historys earliest known genocides, in which strong countries abuse their power in doing what they want while weaker countries do only what they must. If that is true, then one of the obvious lessons to be learned from Abu Ghraib is that in an unstable international situation larger, stronger countries wreak their will on smaller, weaker ones.

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There is further a clear connection between Abu Ghraib, the attack on and occupation of Iraq, and recent history. The contest between Marxist orthodoxy and economic liberalism took up most of the last century but came to a sudden end after the unexpected but irreversible decline of the Soviet Union. In its wake, the old bilateral situation of mutual detente gave way to a situation in which the one remaining superpower could act in an unrestricted way. As long as mutual detente continued, it was possible to believe in the rule of law, one of our most important of all human achievements, as opposed to the rule of men. What has happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo illustrates ways in which what is currently the only remaining superpower has been putting its own interests forward by replacing the rule of law by the rule of men. The events at Abu Ghraib call attention in a very dramatic way to the reality that rather than protecting and extending the rule of law, the United States is engaged in undermining it. The idea that the United States could, without solid proof, launch a war and create a coalition for that purpose with consequences for the entire world in order at least in principle to destroy weapons of mass destruction that never existed, while undertaking at will to redraw the map of the Middle East and to bring democracy through war to a country that has never had any, is simply staggering, difcult to comprehend, and an indication of what can happen when the system of international checks and balances looses its already weak hold on events. Abu Ghraib has, horrible though it was, played an important role in that context in again exposing, this time as concerns the American attack on and occupation of Iraq, the sheer duplicity of strong nations that although claiming to be interested only in the good of everyone are instead concerned only with their own good as narrowly dened by those in power for a small sector of the population. George Bush is fond of repeating that it was the hand of the Almighty that guided him to send U.S. troops into battle to liberate the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship that made torture a state policy. It is difcult to determine if he believes what he says, or if he says it only for the effect it produces, or again says only what he is programmed to say as a kind of wind-up toy sent out on stage to maintain political control for private purposes. A consequence of Abu Ghraib is that whether or not he is engaged in self-deception, his deception of the American people and others around the world who may once have believed military engagement in Iraq was necessary or at least useful has been replaced by an entirely different, more sobering, and pessimistic assessment of the aims and possibilities for success of the American expeditionary forces in the Middle East.

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In purveying a largely erroneous, intentionally deceitful vision of international terrorism in ways benecial to special interest groups with strong representation in his administration, it should be clear that George Bush is less the solution for the present situation than another part of the problem. This is a problem that must be resolved if we are to have any hope of stemming the victory of force over reason.

Tom Rockmore is Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, and the author of many books on European philosophy. Correspondence: Department of Philosophy, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA. E-mail: rockmore@duq.edu