Friday, July 16, 2004

borrowed words on Abu Ghraib

this is a letter sent by my friend Mason about the Abu Ghraib crap.  Since this story seems to have much more to be exposed (none of it has been pretty, but hearing Sy Hersh talk about videos of young boys being anally raped makes my blood boil and reminds me how far there is to go to resolve this), I think it is worth sharing now a few of Mason's insights on the whole thing.  This isn't just about the prison stuff (Mason is not know for limiting tangents), but the whole problem of assumptions about the Middle East, simplified/polarized world views, etc.  This was originally a personal coorespondance so be forewarned, no punches are pulled and language isn't soft, but it is the best analysis of Us and the War on Them that I have read anywhere.
Mason writes:

First off, I want to apologize for the ensuing diatribes, but Mason + Long Overdue Ranting = Catharsis. You are the unfortunate victim of my steam-release.


Top Five Most Disturbing Things About American Reactions to Abu Ghraib

1. It shows just how disconnected the American Public is from the realities of war

I just keep getting overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of how ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ people are over the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib, given that the same people apparently have no qualms about the fact that we have been fucking bombing people in that country for over a year now. By the most conservative estimates, we have killed upwards of eight to ten thousand people in Iraq since we first invaded. Shocked? Appalled? Hell no. Butcher people, refuse to keep track of how much ‘collateral damage’ we are causing (and thereby relieve ourselves of any responsibility to minimize it), but please, dear God, don’t mistreat them in our prisons. That sort of thing is cruel.

It reminds me of earlier in the war, when service crews on some aircraft carriers were publicly reprimanded for writing taunts and ethnic slurs on bombs being loaded into our planes. It was fine to drop these bombs and kill people, but uncouth graffiti was an affront to our morals.

Which all painfully illustrates how we have embraced certain forms of violence as being acceptable and necessary to the point that they have been etched out of our consciousness. Violence by our aircraft and our troops isn’t really violence at all. The only real violence is caused by the other side (this is something I’ll come back to). We are so trained to slide away uncomfortable realities that we are deeply and sincerely shocked when something new surfaces to show us that this war does, in fact, involve pain, degradation and suffering.

2. Confirms the truism that we Americans loves our violence, but get freaked out about sex

Let it be noted that the new something that surfaced and imposed the uncomfortable reality of pain, degradation and suffering was not photographs of physical violence but of sexual abuse.  There is no shortage of pictures of physical violence by our troops against Iraqi civilians, as any cursory perusal of Arabic media will show you. But while photographs of the dead children hit by our mortars and the elderly women shot by our bullets have not caused the slightest quiver of revulsion in our press, pictures of naked men in hoods have started a media firestorm.

I sincerely believe that had the abuse in Abu Ghraib involved only straight physical violence, from beatings to dog maulings, we would not have given a damn (as we apparently don’t give a damn about photographs of our ‘collateral damage’). The reason being that public, graphic displays of violence are part and parcel of American culture, while all things sexual are shoved like a nervous and ashamed twelve-year olds’ porno mags under our collective bed.

Earlier this year, people took their children by the church-vanful to see possibly one of the most graphically bloody films since Caligula. The Passion had people flayed alive by glass-studded whips, eyeballs ripped from their sockets by hungry crows, screaming and writhing victims of torture, and all it would have taken to change the movie from a ‘family film’ to one unacceptable for the Christian Right’s children would be a single nipple. One bare breast, not to mention a shot of James Caviezel’s messianic buttocks, would have changed the whole discourse on whether the film went too far in it’s explicitness. Pat Robertson may make the argument that intensely graphic depictions of Biblical events are appropriate and necessary where 10-minute scourging scenes are concerned, but if someone were to make a movie about Sodom and Gomorra tomorrow, I doubt he would be in favor of a 10-minute homosexual orgy scene, much less encourage families to take their kids to see it.

3. The constant talk about how the sexual torture was especially painful for Arabs

All right, given how fucked up Americans’ attitudes towards sexuality and nudity are, I just want to bash my head into a wall every time I hear some little pundit talk about how sexual torture was particularly humiliating to Arabs. Being stripped naked by laughing prison guards with cameras, being forced into sexual acts by jeering bastards at gunpoint, being sodomized with chemical lights and broom-sticks, are humiliating to every-fucking-one. We aren’t allowed one minute of unmediated empathy with the poor bastards being tortured. We aren’t allowed one minute of putting ourselves in their place, before we are reminded that they are Arabs. Arabs are different from us, by definition.  We must never forget this.

Arabs are violent, irrational, and have strange tribal customs. They are also childlike, in that they have a lot of learning to do before they can become responsible citizens of the modern world. When there was widespread looting in Baghdad, Rumsfeld said that the reason there was anarchy in the streets was that They were new to freedom and hadn’t yet learned how to deal with this fact. Bitch, when the power went out for one day in New York City last year, the entire nation patted them on the back for keeping calm and not descending into chaos. Take away the power for six months, bomb the place into rubble, then take all the police off the streets and see if you don’t get a revisit to the Lord of the Flies. ‘Being new to freedom’ had two things to do with it: jack and shit.

But this kind of thinking, placing oneself in the circumstances of your average Iraqi, is not something we are allowed to do. We are preemptively inundated with talk from thousands of “experts” explaining all the ways in which They are different from Us. So you can’t go directly to an empathetic understanding of any Arab without first navigating through the maze of what you are told Arab Society is. Sure, I would hate to be lorded over by a foreign power at gunpoint, but would an Arab? Sure, I would hate to be stripped and raped by prison guards, but how would an Arab feel? That mental catch is inserted into popular discourse and is the first step towards cutting off empathy for a whole segment of the world’s population, which is also the first step towards justifying their exploitation.

Mark my words: culture is the new race. Whereas in the 19th and 20th centuries it was acceptable to classify the world into races that were fundamentally different from each other (and could therefore be treated differently), now, under the rhetoric of cultural tolerance, we are dividing the world into different cultures that are fundamentally different from each other. We can no longer say “Negroes are not suited for self-governance” but we can say, “Arab culture is authoritarian in essence and does not posses the democratic impulses of the West.” There are fucking bookstores full of this bullshit out there; racist screeds clothed in the guise of scholarship.

I’m not saying that cultural differences don’t exist, far from it, but there are certainly fundamentals we all share (and we can talk later about the pitfalls of universal humanism, but believe me, I am using the concept advisedly). And I’m certainly not saying that attitudes towards dress and personal modesty in the Middle East are the same as in America. For nearly a year, I lived in one of the hottest damn areas in the world without the benefit of shorts or tank tops because they were not acceptable culturally. But you know what? In the context of extreme sadism and exploitation, the differing degrees of every-day modesty are overwhelmed by the basic human responses of humiliation and pain to torture. Americans in that situation would not have felt any less violated. And yet we have to be reminded that these were Arabs, and Arabs are different (even when their reactions are the same, that too requires some explanation to be found in ‘Arab Culture’). Men and women have different attitudes towards sex and nudity. Gender is a powerful force in shaping people’s consciousness, and yet no one thought to try and bring up the fact that these were men who were tortured and the valences that that might have on the
situation. Because it is completely irrelevant to the situation, just like the cultural background of the victims. The right not to be tortured is a human right.

But instead of thinking about Middle Eastern peoples from a baseline of shared humanity, American mass culture has bought into the idea of cultural essentialism. Civilizations are monolithic essences that divide the global population into neat little packets, as purely and completely as races did a century ago. The whole thing is supported by psuedo-scholarly bigots from Samuel Huntington to Bernard Lewis to the psuedo-populist bastards from Rush Limbaugh to Ralph Reed. These racist fucks have co-opted the language and concepts invented by cultural relativists and injected them with a self-righteous judgmentalism that makes it the West’s (read: white man’s) duty to reform (read: conquer) the Islamic World (read: unruly natives). Post-colonialism my ass.

4. The way in which unspoken definitions of Us and Them are so fucking amorphous that they can get twisted to justify anything.

All right, the first disturbing thing about this is that the American public believes with all their hearts that there is an Us and a Them in the first place, and that these are apparently unproblematic and obvious categories (a condition that is pre-supposed in the oft-asked question ‘Why do They hate Us’). Who They are is never concretely defined (Arabs? Muslims? People from the Middle East? Terrorists? The French?), but We are supposed to know the differences intuitively. This situation is allowed and created, as the previous rant touched on, by the cultural essentialism spewing out of influence-making centers, from bookstores to pulpits to broadcasting booths.

The second disturbing thing is how value-laden these assumptions are, and how they justify anything We might want to do to Them (and for the rest of this diatribe, I’m going to drop the capitalization of ‘Us and Them’ because it’s getting too annoying to type). So what do we hear in response to the right wing bastards eschewing the gravity of Abu Ghraib by saying that they have no room to criticize us because they use torture routinely (and it’s real torture, not this light-hearted ‘hazing’ stuff)? The answer from the supposed left is that it doesn’t matter what they do, we’re better than them. This is the whole justification for being in Iraq, we’re told, because we are better than them, and we can’t stoop to their standards.

Who the fuck is them in this situation?  Saddam Hussein’s regime tortured people, but it’s not Saddam that is expressing outrage over Abu Ghraib, it’s the Iraqi public. The Iraqi public did not torture, the Iraqi public was tortured. Why does being oppressed under the iron fist of a totalitarian fuck make one unable to criticize torture, or even, as I guess the logic goes, responsible for the torture in the first place? The American media sees it as hypocritical of the Arab world to condemn the United States for using torture because many Arab governments routinely torture. But there isn’t a single goddamn Arab democracy worth the name, so why are Arabs being held accountable for the actions of the dictators and oligarchies who victimize them?

It’s because of how fuzzy the notions of ‘them’ are, so that we conflate Arab, Muslim, Middle-Eastern, Radical, and Terrorist into one hazy threatening entity. It’s the reason why, if Bush had decided to invade North Korea (which actually does posses weapons of mass destruction) instead of Iraq (which doesn’t) the public would have balked. Because the war on Iraq could be framed as part of the War on Terrorism in a way that the war against any non-Muslim state could never be. It all depends on keeping this undifferentiated and menacing mental construct unexamined. It creates a situation in which all Muslims are held accountable for the evil deeds of any particular Muslim. They’re all part of the same entity.

This shoddy thinking also goes some distance towards explaining why the torture at Abu Ghraib was carried out in the first place. On the one hand, the soldiers in Iraq are there for the ostensible benefit of Iraqis. Iraqis are the people they are trying to defend. On the other hand, Iraqis Them, are the enemy, are the terrorists. With terrorists, as the Bush administration has made clear at Guantanamo, the conventional restraints go out the door (including the presumption of innocence). So the prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren’t just poor bastards rounded up in routine sweeps and jailed, they were the evil bastards who blew up the World Trade Center, who were killing fellow soldiers, who wanted to destroy America. You can do anything to them.

In an era of casual racism against Arabs, and panicked fear of terrorism, I think that the average American, given complete power over a bunch of Arabs and told they were probably terrorists, would eventually come up with something that looked like the photos from Abu Ghraib. This is why I don’t by the ‘bad apples’ bullshit. The capacity for evil is in all of us, and all it really takes to do something horrible is to be able shut down your empathy for the victims. You can do anything to cattle, especially when you feel threatened. In Iraq, we consistently portray the ‘natives’ as less than fully human. That feeling, combined with unrestricted power, leads down the road to Auschwitz. It’s why I don’t think you need written orders to commit atrocities in wartime. You need constant vigilance and strict discipline to prevent atrocities in wartime, which is why the fucks running this war, although they might not have explicitly authorized torture, are as culpable as the grunts who carried it out: because they did nothing to keep it from happening.

And it’s also why I don’t buy the bullshit that Abu Ghraib does not reflect what we are as Americans. The picture of a hooded man, tied with wires, standing on a raised platform is about as accurate a portrait of American foreign policy as I can think of. If only he was being sodomized by a quart of Pennzoil. But when it comes to defining us and them, everything good about us is always the most representative thing, everything bad about them is always the most representative thing. Ask anybody about women in Islam, and they’ll tell you about oppression in Saudi Arabia and burkas in Afghanistan. The collective populations of Saudi and Afghanistan, which are the most extreme in the Islamic World with regards to gender relations, represent one percent of the world’s Muslim population. Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have all had female prime ministers (and how many has the US had?) and account for a third of the world’s Muslim population. But what are we told is really representative of Islam? Burkas.

And it goes even further back. This may be a discussion for an entirely different rant, but when we learned about Western Civilization it started out in the Middle East. We read the epic of Gilgamesh, learned about ancient Middle Eastern religions like Judaism and Christianity, and learned about the Hellenic Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, which all led in a straight uninterrupted line to Modern Northwestern Europe. This is fine, in that all the previous cultures did play a substantial part in providing the cultural and historic heritage to Enlightenment France and Britain, where the whole idea of the West was really birthed. But when we learn of Islamic Civilization, do we start out in the Ancient Middle East, learn about the Epic of Gilgamesh and Greek philosophy? No, we start out in Arabia in 622 CE with the revelation of the Prophet. Why? Because all progress in world history is leading to the crowning achievement of world history, Western Civilization. Everything else along the way is a footnote. So we ‘get’ Greece and Rome as forebears to Western Civilization and the Muslims don’t get them as forbears of Islamic Civilization even though the bulk of Greek texts we have today come to us through Arabic translations. Stupid motherfuckin’ historians. All right, sorry, this whole e-mail is full of tangents, but I am getting pretty far off topic now. Back to Abu Ghraib…

5. The only real violence is Their violence.

People are equivocating over whether to call the atrocities at Abu Ghraib torture or to use some dickless euphemism like ‘abuse’ or ‘mistreatment’ or ‘frat-style hazing.’ If American civilians were stripped naked, hooded, and forced into sex acts, we would not hesitate in our terminology. But ideals of our collective identity will trump reality any day of the week. Americans don’t torture, that’s something they do, not us.

And it goes on from there, from torture to any kind of violence. These are not things that we do, or when we do them they are so justified as to not really count as torture or violence. Because violence is something that happens to people, and we’ve already seen how Arabs aren’t really fully human, so how could violence happen against them? Ask anybody how many people have died in Iraq, and they’ll say seven or eight hundred. Then remind them that you said ‘people’ not ‘Americans’.

But, of course, this situation is not exclusive to the situation in Iraq, or with America in particular. This is what people do to their enemies in war. They strip away the humanity and change what would normally be called murder into a fully state-sanctioned activity. But it is endemic to the way Americans think about violence against Arabs.

Take Israel / Palestine. Although the Israelis have killed nearly three times as many Palestinians as Palestinians have Israelis, the major obstacle to peace, according to the Administration, is Palestinian violence. When Sheikh Yassin was assassinated, it was not reported in the American press as a major escalation of violence. It was said that it might lead to an escalation of violence, because, once again, violence is only worth the name if they do it against us (and believe you me, the American public from the neo-cons on down conflate America with Israel). When Time magazine listed American victims of terror a year or two ago, they included people killed by Palestinians in the course of the conflict with Israel. They did not include Americans killed by Israelis (even though the story of Rachel Corrie being run over by a bulldozer had made headlines). Because its us against them, all over the world.

Back to Iraq, the whole business makes me want to retch, and then punch someone. And we haven’t even seen the worst of it (there was a children’s wing to Abu Ghraib, remember). And the most infuriating thing about it is the fact that the American public, as this whole e-mail has been fuming about, are reacting to the whole business in ways that confirm all of our stereotypes about ourselves and others. We refuse to honestly examine our role in the world, and refuse to think critically about how we have framed this whole stupid ‘War on Terror.’ Most of all, we are refusing to see people, outside of our stupid nationality, as fellow human beings, worthy of the same respect and care as every other person on the planet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to Washington and find someone to kick in the shins.

Peace out,


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