May 18, 2004

The Responsibility Gap

"What are the odds that a 21-year-old reservist from a small town decided out of the clear blue sky to strip her prisoners naked and lead them around on a leash? She must have been told by superiors to do this, or at least been told to make the prisoners eager to talk or some similar order suggesting extreme measures. Her motive cannot have been sexual, as talk radio has implied; can you think of any situation less erotic than a filthy prison, grubby prisoners and fellow soldiers with cameras? An individual soldier might mistreat prisoners for reasons of personal sadism. But entire groups of guards don't suddenly become sadists at the same time out of the clear blue sky. Someone must have told them to soften the prisoners up. And the someone who must have told them appears to have been knowledgeable about Arab culture, far more than a 21-year-old reservist from the mountain town of Cumberland, Maryland, is likely to have been. Male homosexuality is deeply shameful in Arab culture; to force naked Arab prisoners to simulate gay sex, taking pictures you could threaten to show, would be far worse than beating them. Someone familiar with Arab psychology, an Army intelligence officer or a CIA officer, must have known this and ordered what happened. What are the odds some low-ranking reservists came up with the idea out of the clear blue sky?

Yet so far only enlisted personnel are facing courts martial in the prisoner-abuse fiasco, and this is outrageous. Officers are responsible for what happens under their command. It is the officers, not the enlisted men and women, who should be held to account." [emphasis added]

Some common-sensical straight talk from Gregg Easterbrook.

And don't miss Mark Danner's NYRB piece either.

Some key grafs:

"As I write, we know nothing of what "American intelligence knew"—apart from a hint here or there, this critical fact is wholly absent from both reports, as it has been from the public hearings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other officials. General Taguba, following his orders, concentrates instead on the activities of the military police, hapless amateurs who were "tasked" to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses" and whose work, thanks to digital photography, has now been displayed so vividly to the citizens of the world. It is this photography that has let us visualize something of what happened to Mr. Abd one night in early November, following a fight among prisoners, when he and six other men were brought to what was known as "the hard site" at Abu Ghraib, the wing for the most dangerous prisoners:

The seven men were all placed in hoods, he said, and the beating began. "They beat our heads on the walls and the doors," he said. "I don't really know: I couldn't see." He said his jaw had been broken, badly enough that he still has trouble eating. In all, he said, he believes that he received about 50 blows over about two hours.
"Then the interpreter told us to strip," he said. "We told him: 'You are Egyptian, and you are a Muslim. You know that as Muslims we can't do that.' When we refused to take off our clothes, they beat us and tore our clothes off with a blade."
It was at this moment in the interview...that several pages of the photographs made public last week were produced.... He quickly and unemotionally pointed out all his friends—Hussein, Ah med, Hashim—naked, hooded, twisted around each other.
He also saw himself, as degraded as possible: naked, his hand on his genitals, a female soldier, identified in another report as Pvt. Lynndie England, pointing and smiling with a cigarette in her mouth. Mr. Abd said one of the soldiers had removed his hood, and the translator ordered him to masturbate while looking at Private England....

"She was laughing, and she put her hands on her breasts," Mr. Abd said. "Of course, I couldn't do it. I told them that I couldn't, so they beat me in the stomach, and I fell to the ground. The translator said, 'Do it! Do it! It's better than being beaten.' I said, 'How can I do it?' So I put my hand on my penis, just pretending."

All the while, he said, the flash of the camera kept illuminating the dim room that once held prisoners of Mr. Hussein....

Particularly given that many of the detainees so odiously handled were not 'high value'--in terms of any intelligence information they could impart to their interrogators (if we can call them that)--these tactics were not only reprehensible in the extreme but also simply stupid.

[ed. note: Some clarifications given a few E-mails sent in overnight. No I didn't mean to imply that some of the torture methods could have been justified in the case of 'high value' detainees. And, yes, the use of the word torture is appropriate, in my view.]

Such tactics, of course, play into the hands of the insurgents.

As Danner puts it:

....This of course is a prime goal of the insurgents; they cannot defeat the Americans militarily but they can defeat them politically. For the insurgents, the path to such victory lies in provoking the American occupiers to do their political work for them; the insurgents ambush American convoys with "improvised explosive devices" placed in city neighborhoods so the Americans will respond by wounding and killing civilians, or by imprisoning them in places like Abu Ghraib. The insurgents want to place the outnumbered, overworked American troops under constant fear and stress so they will mistreat Iraqis on a broad scale and succeed in making themselves hated."

Danner concludes:

"Many of the young Americans smiling back at us in the photographs will soon be on trial. It is unlikely that those who ran "the process" and issued the orders will face the same tribunals. Iraqis will be well aware of this, even if Americans are not. The question is whether Americans have traveled far enough from the events of September 11 to go beyond the photographs, which show nothing more than the amateur stooges of "the process," and look squarely at the process itself, the process that goes on daily at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and other secret prisons in Iraq and around the world.

To date the true actors in those lurid scenes, who are professionals and no doubt embarrassed by the garish brutality of their apprentices in the military police, have remained offstage. None has testified. The question we must ask in coming days, as Specialist Jeremy Sivits and other young Americans face public courts-martial in Baghdad, is whether or not we as Americans can face a true revelation. We must look squarely at the photographs and ask: Is what has changed only what we know, or what we are willing to accept?"

That's the question, isn't it?

I'm certainly not willing to accept what was depicted in these pictures--and I'm speaking as someone who has raised money for Bush and supported the Iraq war.

Which is another reason I find these weasely (non) apologies underwheming and beneath many of these men and women.

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