On the 15th of this month, the Australian television station SBS broadcast one of the most awful and horrendous programs I have ever seen. The images aired — many for the first time anywhere — were still photographs and raw videos of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These were abuses committed by American servicemen and women against suspected terrorists.
We have already seen some of these images, including ones of a heap of naked men taken from the back, a shot of Army Pfc. Lynndie England, now in jail, holding a prostrate suspect on a leash, and that icon of George W. Bush’s crusade for freedom and democracy, a man standing on a box with his fingers attached to wires and his head covered by a black hood.
When some of those photographs came to light in May 2004, even the Pentagon admitted they represented the tip of a massive iceberg. It is an iceberg that those people executing the war in the Middle East have managed to keep largely out of sight. Now, thanks to the SBS exclusive on its popular news program “Dateline,” hosted by George Negus, some more of this material has entered the public domain. The question is: Will it strike the conscience of America, either now or in the future?
“Dateline” showed corpses covered in wounds and sores, one of them with a slit across his throat. Another man had a cluster of shotgun wounds on his lower back and buttocks. His captors had, it seems, shot him in the back. Several men were videotaped masturbating, and we were told that this was being watched by American soldiers of both sexes.
But to me the most disturbing sequence was one of a young male prisoner who obviously had a mental disability. The man was in the habit of covering himself with his own excrement and bashing his head against the steel door of his cell. He was filmed doing this from a number of angles; and according to the program, his captors derived much entertainment from these actions and thought of the man as their playmate.
Cruel and illegal practices have been going on not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Twenty-five individuals labeled as “bad apples” have been punished for previously exposed abuses at Abu Ghraib, with Lynndie England and her boyfriend Cpl. Charles Grainer being the most prominent among them. And that despite Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself having given the official nod to interrogation methods that led to these extreme crimes of abuse. No senior officer or official has been charged for the crimes.
In the days after the SBS broadcast, the United Nations announced that the footage was “deeply disturbing,” and U.S. State Department spokesman John Bellinger termed the images “disgusting.” Bellinger went on to say, “It is unfortunate that the photographs have come out, because it only fans the flames at a time when sentiments are raw.”
The Bush administration is fond of reminding us that we are in a “post-9/11 world.” The effect of this grave reminder is clear to all around the world: Any means that the United States chooses to bring to bear on its perceived enemies is justified; any discussion of past abuses will be treated as “history.” As White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan is fond of asserting, “You guys [in the media] may want to talk about this sort of thing, but we’ve got a job to get on with protecting the American people.”
It is precisely this “job” that is causing such misery around the world. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld will be remembered not for leading soldiers and citizens on a march of freedom, but for sanctioning and permitting what very well may be the most systematic physical and mental torture that the U.S. has conducted since the Civil War.
The day after the SBS program, morning talk shows in Australia took up discussion of whether it was “useful” to broadcast those images so long after the incidents occurred. One pundit on Channel 7’s “Sunrise” show said, “We don’t show men and women jumping out of the World Trade Center in New York, do we? We don’t show what their [the terrorists’] acts of terror led to.”
I was particularly struck by the reference to “so long after” the abuses at Abu Ghraib took place. After all, there are still Nazi-hunters going around the world flushing out concentration camp guards. One of them from the Simon Wiesenthal Center was in Australia on the very day the Abu Ghraib torture footage was shown. He was seeking the extradition of a Hungarian-Australian for allegedly committing war crimes at a German concentration camp. Needless to say (though it surely does need to be said), no one would dare claim on television, about war crimes committed more than 60 years ago, that is isn’t “useful” to pursue the perpetrators after so long.
Bush and his confidants are right. We are living in a post-9/11 world. It is a world in which one terrorist atrocity on American soil is taken as the excuse to torture suspects, decimate cities and wreak havoc on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
That this is being done in the name of “democracy” is the surest guarantee that American democracy, and those who support it, will be discredited and mistrusted for years to come.
The images of the tortured prisoners of Abu Ghraib should, by all rights, haunt the American conscience. But that conscience is so permeated with aggressive self-righteousness that there is no room for reflection or remorse.
The leaders of Nazi Germany and wartime Japan paid for the crimes committed by underlings in their names. In America, a few “bad apples” have been blamed for the rotten wood of the barrel they came from.
Until the American people examine this wood and see it for what it is, the American grain of cruelty committed vindictively for God and country, then 9/11 will indeed go down as an event that changed the world; as the day democracy, and the American conscience with it, was buried under a million tons of dust.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.