Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Abu Ghraib: finally finished

Part Three: Shouldn’t We Have Guessed?

Next time I decide to write a post in several parts, i'll just write the whole thing at once and post it serially. Sorry its taken me like two weeks to get this thing done, but its still important I feel so here is part three.

For the introduction click here
For part one click here
For part two click here

The third way Abu Ghraib affects us is actually two ways in one. We are simultaneously hit with outrage (“What the hell is going on?! How could we have done this?!”) and a sense that we should’ve seen this coming. We gave the government carte blanche to set human rights policy, it in turn gave soldiers carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted (or “deemed necessary”) to soften up mainly innocent people for interrogation in order to extract information they didn’t have.

The question remains: why didn’t we see it coming? Or, to rephrase, why did we trust the government?

I am not some conspiracy theory spouting street preacher, or Lone Gunman wandering around seeking evidence of government ill will, nor am I part of the International ANSWER end of the left, where the American Government is the Great Satan attempting to spread its pernitious imperialistic influence wherever it goes. The fact still remains, however, that democracy requires of us that we be always skeptical and investigative of our government, and we have failed miserably at that as a nation.

Besides lofty political-theory reasons, we also should not have trusted our government because of history. History, especially the twentieth century, has shown us that governments are not to be trusted. Just to name a few examples from the US involvement in twentieth century politics: Japanese Internment, the overthrowing of Salvador Allende in Chile and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Watergate, both Red Scares, Jim Crow and Iran-Contra. All of these were done under cover of protecting us (or our “interests” those shadowy, never articulated reasons why the government does things). Judging from this list (and this leaves off other countries’ actions like Apartheid, the Holocaust etc.) there’s no reason why you would ever listen to someone in power when they say “trust us, we’ve got everything under control”.

But we did. We all did. Our elected representatives failed us, and we failed to hold them accountable (is anyone going to pay for voting for the Patriot Act in November? I doubt it). Colin Powell told us that we are observing “the spirit” of the Geneva Conventions if not the letter and we said, “oh, of course, the spirit. That makes sense.”

In effect, we turned a blind eye towards history. These United States are often singled out for how we have unshackled ourselves from the bonds of history, or at least slipped loose the coil of knowledge of history. Some people (especially neo cons) seem to think that’s what makes this country great. We are unburdened by our history and thus able to Dream Big. For some people (especially socialists and people from very old countries) it is what gives this country its dominating, debilitating ego. By ignoring history, we are lost, trying out ideas with no referent to guide us, navigating by dead reckoning, without even Polaris or some sense of humility to guide us.

I’m going to posit here that we did this willfully, if not necessarily knowingly. In the wake of 9/11, we wanted our government to be able to do whatever they wanted so long as we didn’t have to be confronted with what was really going on. We did this because we thought it would make us safer, and as long as we didn’t have to be confronted with the hypocrisy of drastically compromising liberty in order to defend it, we were okay.

This poses two problems, a factual one and a moral/ethical one. The first one is whether or not this actually made us safer in any way. According to the government, some amount of torture has yielded some amount of useful intelligence. Any safety created by this has however almost certainly been destroyed by the widespread knowledge that we torture people. This knowledge was created in part by these photographs, and it is only going to get worse. Indeed, the story of how Abu Ghraib went down seems to get worse every forty eight hours (the fact that “specialists” from Gitmo were at Abu Ghraib, for example, has all sorts of frightening implications). As more information comes out, we will get noticeably less and less safe. Retribution will be sought, and ranks of killers will swell.

The second problem is the moral/ethical one. Is it okay to torture people, ever, for whatever reason? My personal opinion is no, at least of a physical kind. Psychologically, I don’t really know where I stand, because the line between interrogation and psychological torture is almost nonexistent. Physical torture is not acceptable in my book, but it is in some. The “ticking time bomb” example is often used to justify torture. There is a terrorist. You know there is a bomb going to go off. You know that the terrorist has knowledge about the bomb. He’s in your custody, do you torture him? The “ticking time bomb” theory, however, is hard to take seriously if you think about all of the criteria that have to be met. You know this man has knowledge, you know a bomb is going to go off, but yet you don’t know where it is. Outside of “24”, the odds of this happening are staggeringly low. This example is used in order to make a case for torture and start us down the slippery slope. Once you say “okay” to this torture, why not say that every Arab in Iraq knows someone who is an insurgent (we think) so why not torture as many as possible to get information?

We have a government that is rounding up people and putting them into camps. Most of them almost certainly fought against our country. Most of them (at least the ones who have been there for awhile) almost certainly have no more information to give us. We can guess from Abu Ghraib and what has come out since that the people in those camps are being tortured.

We have turned a blind eye to this ever since September 11th, and that’s not all. We’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that we have almost certainly killed more civilians in our two wars that died in the World Trade Center. We’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that our government never had a public reason for declaring war, that our opposition party totally and completely failed in its duty to the American public, that the man running for President for the Democrats was part of that massive failure. We’re turned a blind eye to the fact that, in Israel, we arm one side of the conflict while telling everyone we’re an honest broker. We turn a blind eye to the very idea that these people we’re killing are human beings. And finally, we’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that in a representative democracy, we are responsible for what our leaders do.
Abu Ghraib startles us because we have discovered that torturing people isn’t exactly kosher with us. We thought we could stand it so long as we didn’t have to hear about it, but now that we can see it, a bit of our humanity has crept back in, and it is scolding us for allowing this to happen. This, above all else, gives me hope. We live in the wealthiest society in the history of the world, and we have systemically eliminated as much humanism from our government and social spheres as we thought we could abide. It is throwing our society into crisis on all sorts of levels. Abu Ghraib is a psychological crisis. Americans are capable of this. They were almost certainly ordered to do it. This is the true face of war. We allowed it to happen.

In the face of disasters like Abu Ghraib, our obesity epidemic, a mendacious President, our murder rates, our child poverty rate, our incarceration rates, the price of good health care, and the brave men and women of our armed forces being picked off by insurgents all over a foreign land, only a bold change towards a new humanism in government offers and kind of lasting solution. Hopefully we can heed the call to make it come about, since our elected “leaders” certainly don’t seem to have any problems with business as usual.


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