(note, for the introduction to "3 Impacts" click here
Abu Ghraib is the brick through the window of American Exceptionalism. A key facet of any empire is the belief that you are exceptional, the salt of the Earth, all evil means necessary for beneficent ends, too busy being a lamp that lights this dark dark world for generations to really worry about the consequences of your actions. It took several wars and many battles of independence to shake England of this most pernicious of diseases. Seeing Americans destroying innocent Iraqis in the torture chambers of a mad dictator we said we were liberating these people from is a painful wake up call. Whether we heed it or not is a different story.
We have tried to limit the damage to our exceptionalism by claiming these despicable acts of torture were limited to a few individuals. Regardless of whether or not the Abu Ghraib scandal goes all the way to the top (I think it does, but that’s not really relevant to my argument) the “bad apple” theory is so obviously an exercise in cognitive dissonance that it shouldn’t require debunking. The prison guards at Abu Ghraib were not exceptional. Put another random group of Americans, and you may very well have gotten the same thing.
Philip Zimbardo knows this probably better than anyone else. The mad scientist behind the Standord Prison Experiment has been getting a lot of TV time lately. He tries to explain how, in barely anytime at all, a group of random college kids became brutal totalitarians, systematically dehumanizing their fellow students as part of a mock penitentiary. And that was at a college campus in the 1970’s, not in a battle field where your friends are being picked off by an anonymous enemy and this guy in front of you covered in shit might have the information you need.
If we need more proof that Charles Grainer, Lyddie England et al are merely ciphers, we need look no further than our hazing rituals. Limbaugh was onto something (inadvertent, I think) when he claimed that Abu Ghraib was like a Skull & Bones initiation. Remember when video tape emerged of a soccer team hazing ritual amongst suburban teenage girls? The older girls covered their younger counterparts in buckets of feces and made them chant and sing. Several of the guards at Abu Ghraib weren’t much older than those high schoolers. Who knows what wisdom they were supposed to gain in those scant few years that would help them grapple with the immensity of holding another human life in your hands, combined with the permission to do whatever the hell you want.
Our exceptionalism led us to believe that we could make this war work, that we could do it on the cheap (and be greeted as liberators to boot!) and it leads our President to be upset because the pictures don’t represent the true character of the American People. The President is both right and wrong at the same time. We are not a nation of torturers. We are, however, a nation of humans, capable of everything that humans are capable of, good and bad. You cannot say that Americans are categorically incapable of torturing people while there are photos swimming in our national consciousness of Americans torturing people. In order to make that particularly worthless argument stick, you have to argue either that those people aren’t Americans, or that they aren’t human beings. So far, the “isolated incident” arguers are taking the latter step: these people, we’re now told, are monsters. This argument is counter factual with what we know, however. There are torture chambers all over the world, some of them operate with our government’s complicity and knowledge. There are now (we know) relaxed regulations for torturing people in US custody at Gitmo and elsewhere. How many isolated incidents does it take to make up a systemic problem? How many monsters must people this world and the United States before we admit that they are merely human, just like us?
My point is not that America is evil. My point is that this country is made up of human beings. In post WWII US culture, we have been told time and again that we are the exceptions to the rules of how the rest of the world works. We have the best system of government, made up of people interested in nothing more than the public good. We are caring, compassionate people, who are always trying to do right even when we do wrong. We are, in other words, supermen, only without kryptonite to keep us back, our shining city on the hill getting its powers from the Earth’s yellow sun and spreading peace, justice and the American way throughout the globe. If it takes propping up some petty dictators, forgiving genocide and toppling democratically elected socialists, that’s just the price of doing business.
This exceptionalism is not unique. Exceptionalism is merely the psychological counterpart to the ideology of nationalism. Why are we nationalists? Because our country is the best. What does that mean? That we are the best, plain and simple. We are not alone in this, and it is becoming increasingly clear that exceptionalism is a debilitating psychological disease that robs people and nations of their potential. The Chinese failed to colonize much of the Middle East (and some of Eastern Europe) in the 15th century in part because they believed the land already belonged to their Emperor, regardless of whether the people in the land realized it or not. You don’t even need to belong to a state to fall victim to nationalism and exceptionalism. We Jews often claim victimhood as our exceptional property. Whenever you hear “6 million Jews and 6 million others died in the Holocaust” you are hearing exceptionalism rear its ugly head. By grouping everyone else into “others” we deny that the “others” (gays, Christian Scientists, gypsies, Jehova’s Witnesses, the elderly, the handicapped etc.) were also systematically hunted down and exterminated. We become a particular kind of Holocaust denier, denying that anyone other than ourselves has experienced the pain and suffering that we collectively have. By denying this, we deny the essential humanity in those other groups that also went to the camps.
This is not to mention Norway, which has one of the most humanitarian systems of government in the world, but ranks dead last in foreign aid. Or the Academy Francais’ dedication to making France’s intellectual progress remain distinctly French. Or Islamic Fundamentalism with its call to slaughter infidels.
No one is special. Certainly, no one nationality or religion or ethnicity is special. We are all humans. We are all just trying to make our way in the world and our humanity is both beautiful and terrifying, capable of descending into a Hobbesian state of nature or writing the works of Shakespeare. We can invent systems that limit the damage one human can inflict on another and even, if we’re lucky, encourage the best that humanity has to offer. Much of religion, for example, seems to exist for this purpose (the Ten Commandments, turning the other cheek, etc.), as do many systems of government.
These systems can be manipulated, perverted and bent toward pernicious ends. For the past few years, if not decades, our politicians have been spoon-feeding us endless ego gratification—America is the best! We will create democracy by force and bend the world to our ends, for our ends are just! After 9.11, this practice slipped the bounds of reason entirely. “Our President is infallible,” the oracles and pundits shouted, “a god-like figure that we cannot touch!” People who dared claim that maybe we weren’t going into the war in Iraq for good reasons (or who pointed out that no one seemed to know what the reasons were) were laughed at as pessimists and traitors. After all, we’re Americans, and what we decide is true and right and just is True and Right and Just.
American exceptionalism is important to talk about because it got us into this mess. Indeed, this war was fought at least in part on the basis of proving that we were exceptional, and it is going so badly because we are not. We are extremely powerful and extremely wealthy and many of our citizens are dedicated to the Rights of Man, but we are not superheroes and we are not messiahs.
Abu Ghraib is another nail in the coffin of our godhead. Learning that we’re merely mortal is traumatizing, and this is one of the ways we as a nation have been traumatized by these pictures and the graphic acts of dehumanization that they depict. 9/11 showed us that the violence of the world can be inflicted upon us. Abu Ghraib shows us that we can inflict the worst violence of the world on others. If we’re lucky, our misfortunes in Iraq and these photographs in particular will steer us towards a more human (and humanist) public and foreign policy. Perhaps then we can fulfill America’s promise without sowing destruction in our wake.