Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Unconnected Thoughts on Abu Ghraib and American Culture

So I pretty much haven’t written anything about Abu Ghraib. To tell you the truth, I’m having a lot of trouble controlling the steady flow of bile that wants to come out of my mouth into coherent thoughts on the page. So instead of going for coherence, I present the following to you as a jumble of musings on Abu Ghraib.

First off, if you haven’t read Senator Inhofe’s comments during today’s testimony, you really should. To get good commentary, check out Atrios here or Talking Points Memo here. I don’t know if anyone has the link to a video recording, but if you do please send it to me at parabasisnyc@yahoo.com.

The reason why is this… look at the recording of Inhofe’s statement (in which he said that he’s outraged by the outrage about Abu Ghraib and these prisoners got a slightly inappropriate version of what they got comin’ to ‘em) and now look at the woman sitting behind the Senator. She can’t contain her befuddlement at what the Senator is saying no matter how hard she tries. You can see a “what the fuck?” cross her face over and over again. That’s about the best commentary on this idiotic monster of an elected representative as I can think of.

Next unconnected thought: you know, even if no prisoner abuse had ever taken place, even if we were the knights in shining armor our President keeps saying we are, holding Iraqi citizens at one of the main centers of Hussein’s Gulag was a monstrous error. I mean, it's trivial by comparison, and maybe it's just the liberal arts major in me, but symbols matter. As does language. You get an anti-intellectual administration, you reap what you sow. We’re running the country from Hussein’s palaces, and imprisoning people in his old torture chambers and running around telling the world that the rape rooms are now closed. This is a disastrous mistake.

And speaking of intellectual curiosity and symbolic meaning, has anyone noticed all the attention Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment have been getting? Did anyone notice furthermore that the experiment (which I studied in probably three classes through high school and college) is decades old? What did we think we going to happen when we removed all real oversight or control from these folks running the prison?

Next unconnected thought: I just heard on the news the other night some Senator claiming that Rumsfeld’s resignation would be a victory for the terrorists. Look, Al Qaeda and all of them are going to do what they’re going to do to spin whatever we do into the best possible light for their organization. We can’t govern by trying to anticipate what they’re going to be encouraged by and discouraged by. If we do that, than quite literally the terrorists have won because they have intimidated us into changing our nation’s actions to avoid certain consequences. I really wish someone (maybe, say, Kerry, showing some backbone) would just come out and say this. Just say: politicians invoke terrorists in order to scare you into agreeing with them. The truth is we’re fighting against these organizations, but at the same time we’re going to continue to do what’s right, and what’s right may be something that the terrorists think is good for them, but they’re deluding themselves because we’re still on the hunt, we’re going to disrupt these networks, and do what we can to prevent future attacks against civilians, Americans in particular. Doesn’t anyone else think the voters would respect someone who did that?

Next unconnected thought: look, Pentagon, just release the photos and video. We’ve all been told what’s in them. Keeping them from the public eye and dribbling them out is only making the worse. Don’t use the excuse that you’re worried about American safety. What, you don’t think people are pissed just hearing that there’s rape on those tapes? You think they need to see it to support beheading American civilians? I actually think withholding it is more dangerous, not less. Releasing the tapes won’t put Americans in harm’s way. Sending them to Iraq without enough support did that just fine.

I wonder what the people advocating for “enemy combatant” status and Gitmo etc. think about the government’s “trust us” argument now.

As to Rumsfeld resigining… well… shouldn’t he (and his neocon cronies) resign for botching the occupation so thoroughly? I mean, isn’t the torture scandal just a convenient way for supporters of this war (The Economist, T. Friedman, F. Zakaria etc.) to kick his ass out of the back door instead of owning up to the fact that the theoretical war and occupation were never going to go as well as the wars in their heads? Don’t get me wrong, I think Runsfeld should resign, and I think that he and his team took definite steps that encouraged and allowed Abu Ghraib (relieving JAG from its oversight duties, making comments about gloves coming off, setting up the war in total contempt of international standard, practices and laws etc.) but there’s a real plethora of reasons for him to go, and I hope we can focus collectively on all of those over the coming days. That being said, as someone has pointed out somewhere out here in the metaverse, Bush has pretty much tied his political fortunes to Rumsfeld, so it’s pretty clear that Rummy ain’t resigning or being fired any time soon. And unpopularity isn’t going to change it either. Dick Cheney is immensely unpopular, even among registered GOP voters, and yet the Bush team keeps him on as the VP candidate.

Something about Abu Ghraib has really shaken David Brooks. You should read his column today. It isn’t his usual “oh, the Bush administration is kind of fucked up but their hearts are pure and the neocon agenda is just”. He really seems to be undergoing some kind of metamorphosis. It’s interesting. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but it’s interesting.

Now for something from a cultural angle: I’ve said it before here in Parabasis and I’ll say it again. The events at Abu Ghraib legally fall under the definition of torture. Calling it “abuse” softens the blow and keeps us from really reckoning with what went on at Abu Ghraib. I find it an interesting coincidence that as a society we’ve been obsessed with questions around the American sensibility and its lack of a tolerance for disruption. The gay marriage debate and the FCC obscenity smack down are both fundamentally about Americans not wanting to deal with that which offends, challenges or disrupts their worldviews. Gay marriage is anathema to conservatives for many reasons, but the most interesting to me is of course the hidden cultural angle. If gays choose to get married it really takes the wind out of the whole scary forbidden subculture lifestyle choice argument. American’s views on homosexuality will be challenged as more gay couples embrace a public life through civic marriage. If there’s one thing the status quo hates, it’s being challenged.

And then we have the FCC (I know this reads like I’m going out on a serious limb, but I’m trying to explore an idea I’m having as I’m writing it, just bare with me). The entire FCC debate centers really around the government protecting the American public from the knowledge of taboo subjects. Some people want the government’s protection, some people don’t. Either way, there is this idea that information can fundamentally corrupt you. By showing you nipples, saying the f-word, talking about sex or drug use or whatever these little bits of information will disrupt your worldview, and by offending your sensibilities somehow damage you.

And now, tangentially related, we have Abu Ghraib and what appears to be a concerted effort on the part of the news media to treat the American public with kid gloves. We need to know what our citizens are doing to people in other countries. We need to have our outrage provoked. We need to be shown what we as a society are capable of. We need, in other words, to have our sensibilities (those very things the right wing is trying to protect) challenged again and again and again. It is our right and obligation as citizens in a democracy to be well informed, and using euphemisms like “abuse” is a good way for the media to protect us from having our worldview rocked by the horrible events at Abu Ghraib.

The definition of a quagmire is, if I remember correctly, when everything you do makes the situation worse but at the same time, pulling out would be a disaster. I don’t know if Iraq will remain a quagmire forever, but it certainly fits the definition right now. I can only hope that things get better and fast. Honestly, at this point, even if that meant that public opinion would swing back to the Bushes and their disasterous plans for the world, I just hope that there is a shot at redemption for the American people and a glimmer of hope for the Iraqis, who really deserve a better version of freedom than this.


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