A public development of my political and philosophical musings. Occasional thoughts on current events. Primarily for personal satisfaction.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Abu Ghraib photos.

I'm looking back on this much later and feel the need to point out, in case anybody looks at it, that this is an initial reaction to the first photos, before the full scale of abuse became known. I considered taking this post down as it appears to make light of what has turned out to be a serious violation, but decided not to. This post isn't really about the torture as a fact, but about why the actions in these first images were considered torture.

I don’t know what to think about the Abu Ghraib photos. I have a lot of thoughts, of course, but I’m not sure what they add up to. For instance, I know I’m not the only person who’s noticed that, as abuse goes, this stuff is pretty minor league.

These are men standing naked while a woman points at their genitals. That’s abuse? Or a man lies on the ground while a woman holds a leash attached to his neck. This picture can’t tell its own story, of course. To be abuse, we have to fill in the surrounding facts ourselves (did she drag him? did she make him sit up and beg?)—which most of us are eager to do.

Here are three of my many reactions:

1) The controversy is not about the abuse, it’s about the photos. Nobody cared when, in January, the pentagon announced reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Nobody cared when, in March, the pentagon confirmed the abuse and began the penalty phase of their investigation. But when the pictures came out…wow!

Only an intrepid few protest at the School of the Americas, where the U.S. trains Central American death squads, but Abu Ghraib? Uproar. So it’s not the fact of the abuse that bothers us, not the knowledge of the abuse, but the visual—seeing it is what gets our goat. And then there’s no sense of proportion whatsoever.

Until the visual image of a woman pointing at men’s genitals goes head to head with the visual image of five masked men cutting off the head of Nicholas Berg. Then, finally, we get some perspective. These savages might actually have achieved their goal of undermining the rebuilding effort if they hadn’t filmed it. But they did. Because they learned only half the lesson of Abu Ghraib—they learned power, but not how to control it.

Which actually tells you everything you need to know about Islamic Fundamentalists and why they will lose when faced with a disciplined opponent. (The first tip-off was the ’72 virgins’—they’re not committing suicide by mass murder for god or country, they’re doing it for sex. People who call Islamofascists ‘savages’ are more right then they know).

2) How is this abuse anyway? Well, it’s abuse because it’s humiliating. The prisoners are being degraded as people. But it’s only degrading if you’re ashamed of your body. If I accept myself and reject the idea that my bodily functions are dirty, then so what if a woman points at my genitals? Granted, there are rumors of pictures of glow sticks being shoved up people’s butts, raising issues of body autonomy (in roughly the same ballpark as rape, but if rape is about not sex but power, and prison guards already have recognized power over prisoners, then the violation is blunted).

Even the butt play is at worst mildly physically uncomfortable. The ‘abuse’ is still psychic (before I get too far away from my main point, I remind you again of the School of the Americas).

So why is it so awful? Well, one guy said he was made to feel like a woman for a few minutes, which is a fate worse than death. Presumably, that’s not why Americans are so angered. Rather, Christians, like Muslims, believe that the body is dirty. It occurred to our soldiers to do this as a method of torture for the same reason the prisoners felt it was torture—we are taught to hate our bodies, especially the naughty parts. So that merely forcing public recognition that we have bodies, especially naughty parts, is torture worthy of public uproar.

Ultimately, this torture is self-inflicted. Back to the ’72 virgins’ issue: these people are willing to commit suicide by mass murder just to get to a place where they can have lots of guilt-free sex—that’s how much they hate their own body, their own urges. I can’t help but wonder how they’ll treat their 72 virgins.

3) About me: I live in New York City, anti-Bush, anti-war central (not me, the city). Yet I have heard precisely zero conversations about the Abu Ghraib photos. None.

Granted, until a couple days ago, I was an overwhelmed law student and most of my friends are overwhelmed law students, but on the subway, the sidewalk, the store, from my knee-jerk liberal roommate, the library, the cafeteria…not one word. Nothing. The only place in my world that there is any prison abuse controversy at all is in the newspapers and on the web. And yet I accept that there is a controversy.

I know full well that journalists are ignorant arrogant people who simply assume that what is important to them is important to every thoughtful person, and yet here, with nothing to go on but the bleating of journalists, I accept that there is a controversy that actually makes little sense. (Is bringing human rights and democracy to Iraq really tainted because women point at men’s genitals in Iraqi prisons? Again, see above, School of the Americas.)

What does that say about me?
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