[First published January 9, 2005] The latest news on the Abu Gharib prison abuses is that, “Three Iraqi detainees who were allegedly abused at the Abu Ghraib prison by American soldiers will be among the 35 witnesses called to testify in the military trial of Spec . Charles A. Graner Jr., the Army Reservist and alleged ringleader of the abuse who is due to be court-martialed here next week.” (link here)
Everyone has seen the photos of the abuses of the Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison, and has been assailed by a whirlwind of one-sided negative comment and propaganda. Yet, there is a positive side, and unless this is underlined, the abuses remain as a gross and dangerous misperception that can only aid the enemies of freedom and democracy.
The Abu Gharib prison affair, which includes the abuses and reaction to them, is uniformly seen and treated as bad, a black mark on the American occupation of Iraq, on the American military, the Secretary of Defense, the President of the United States, and the United States itself. This is the wrong perspective. The affair actually puts democracy and particularly the United States in a good light, one that should be the basis for any discussion of the affair and response to the critics and enemies. While we should not be happy with what happened, and treat it as the criminal act it is, we should not be surprised at the abuse at Abu Gharib prison. We should have expected even more of it. It is the nature of the environment, and the power of the guards.
The famous Stanford Prison Experiment carried out in 1971 by Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo has showed this. The idea was to determine how people, psychologically tested as “normal,” would role-play as guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment set up for two weeks. The result: the experiment was cancelled after six days, because of the psychological torture and abuse heaped on the “prisoners” by the “guards” and the psychological collapse of some of the “prisoners.” The subjects selected were not wimps, muscle men, or sadists, and were randomly assigned as guards or prisoners.
First, with this in mind, that there is not more abuse at Abu Gharib and other prisons should be surprising, given the conditions in Iraq and that these prisoners, as least some of them surely, have attacked under the cover of civilian clothes other civilians and coalition soldiers. And compare this abuse at Abu Gharib to what the ruling thugs of this world do. For example, when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, his son murdered 2,000 people in the Abu Gharib prison in one day. Neighboring Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Khomeini murdered 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 (including children as young as 13 hanged from cranes, six at a time). On the opposite border to Iraq, when Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria in 1982, his troops murdered 15,000 in Hama in revenge against Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, there were the day-by-day terrorist attacks on the Jews of Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in 2003, killing 50 members of the security forces and 163 civilians; the civilians intentionally targeted as acts of genocide in disregard of the Genocide Convention, and the Geneva Convention meant to protect civilians in time of conflict and war.
And daily, throughout the thugdoms (such as Algeria, Angola, Burma, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam), people are routinely beaten, raped, tortured, some to death, and murdered in their prisons. We should be proud that among Iraqi prisoners held by the coalition military, the killing and abuse is so little, so very little, even by the “normal” abuses we should expect by virtue of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Second, what abuse occurred was reported by other soldiers.
Third, the American military itself initiated investigations before the media got latched on to it, and although many are still ongoing and a court martial of one abuser is in progress, punishment to others has been handed out. Where, in the thugdoms, among all the mass murderers that rule one miserable people or another is there an investigation of mistreatment of prisoners.
Fourth, the press has reported the abuses to the American people—a free press at work. Same question as above. Where in the thugdoms would reporters dare to report on prison abuses?
Fifth, the American Secretary of Defense, in his control of the world’s only super military the second most powerful man in the world next to the president, must publicly report to Congress and face a battery of public questions, some hostile. Again, where in the thugdoms would such a powerful head of the military face questions of the military’s abuse of prisoners. Even the idea is absurd. Only in a democracy.
Sixth, both the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States have reported on these abuses and apologized. Even the thought that Hussein, Assad, Khomeini, Castro, Kim Jung Il, or the various heads of Hamas would have done so is ridiculous. They would more likely have waved from the balcony of their office to the cheering, arm pumping, and sign waving crowds below celebrating what they had done.
So, in this Abu Gharib prison affair we have seen the power of democracy, of a democratically run military, and of a free press. Compared to the thugdoms that still enslave much of the world’s people, of this we should be proud.
Yes, there is a double standard. But look at it this way. It is a compliment to the United States that our enemies and friends expect more of us, that they hold us to a high democratic standard. And it is a complement that our own journalists, politicians, and commentators also hold us to a higher standard than the thugs. They all implicitly, if not explicitly, recognize the United States for what it is. A country devoted to the rights of its citizens and those of the people of the world, and their freedom. This is indeed a complement of the first order, unknowingly bestowed on us even by our mortal enemies.
Link of Note
”Too Nice for Our Own Good“ (12/20/04)
(1/8/05) By Heather Macdonald
“Senate Democrats decided to turn the confirmation hearings of Alberto Gonzales into a referendum on the war on terror–specifically, on the Bush administration’s decision that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to al Qaeda terrorists. They implied that the denial of prisoner-of-war status to al Qaeda fighters resulted in the torture of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
“This “torture narrative” is gospel truth among elite opinion-makers, yet it is false in every detail. It relies on ignorance of the actual interrogation techniques promulgated after 9/11. However spurious, the narrative has had a devastating effect on interrogators’ ability to get intelligence from detainees.”