A 'Morning After' Prescription: Remember Abu Ghraib

In the feverish final hours before the election, the crimes of the Bush administration seemed to be on the tip of every progressive tongue, comprising a familiar litany. The original scandal of this presidency—the fact that Bush was never elected in the first place—belatedly re-entered the public consciousness as November 2nd dawned with court battles over voter intimidation, "missing" ballots, and erroneous attempts to keep anti-Bush voters away from the polls. As progressives watched the campaign unfold, many questions remained unasked, save by the progressive media, especially those questions concerning the Bush administration's clear violation of domestic and international law. The Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal remains a case in point, especially when it became obvious that it had all but disappeared from public view. The recent conviction of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick seemed to strengthen, rather than undermine, the Bush administration's position that the abusive soldiers at Abu Ghraib acted "independently," even as Sergeant Frederick was quoted as saying in his defense that he was "just following orders." Incredibly, even the eleventh-hour revelation that the Bush administration decided that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to all prisoners captured in Iraq has failed to re-start discussion—let alone outrage—over the Abu Ghraib tortures.

There are those who maintain that the outcome of this election will make no difference. This is not our position. Above all other differences, we have reason to believe that John Kerry actually believes in the rule of law, and that a Kerry administration would therefore be subject to critiques about the lack of fairness and equality inscribed in the ways in which laws are passed and enforced. Bush-style moralism, on the other hand, treats law as irrelevant and distracting. According to Bush, "bad guys" are unworthy of the protections afforded by due process, and "good guys" are above the law. Nonetheless, even as we write this article without knowing the outcome of the impending election, it is clear that Abu Ghraib is about American political pathologies at home and abroad, pathologies which are broader and deeper than a single candidate or election. Whether we are on our way to a kindler, gentler Empire under President Kerry, or a ramping up for "Crusades II" under Bush, we are sure that the tortures at Abu Ghraib and the system that set these tortures in motion aren't going to get real attention unless we in the progressive, anti-imperialist movement get our act together and demand it.

Demanding action for Abu Ghraib means more than demanding accountability for the treatment of prisoners in this individual prison, or even for all prisons maintained abroad by the US military. Demanding action for Abu Ghraib demands accountability for all prisons that are overseen by any branch of the US government, be they located within the US border, or outside it. In order to this, it becomes necessary to remember the story of what happened, and to remember when that story seemed to vanish from public view.

There are many scandals, lies, and deceptions that the Bush administration has waved its media wand over to transform or to vanish, with greater and lesser success. Bush's military record comes to mind as one that has met with less success than the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. But when did Abu Ghraib "disappear"?

Following the report of a soldier inside the prison, an internal, military investigation was launched, culminating in early 2004 with the "Taguba Report" a document not intended for public release, that detailed torture at the prison from September to December 2003. By April 2004, a heavy flurry of media attention followed, including two detailed articles by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. As the months went by, the scandal, and public outrage about it, grew. There was talk of many, many more pictures, pictures more damning than what we have already seen. There was talk of explicitly linking the atrocities at Abu Ghraib with atrocities that occur on a regular basis in Guantanamo Bay. There was even talk of firing Rumsfeld and holding other top brass accountable for the abuse of these prisoners. Crucially, the scandal raised doubts in the minds of mainstream Americans about their government's foreign and domestic policies—if our military could do that over there, what else were they/we capable of?

The deluge of media coverage about the scandal died down considerably, beginning, appropriately enough, with coverage of Ronald Reagan. Through all the eulogizing about the man and his presidency that ensued, we were told, appropriately enough, that he "changed the course" for America, that he "made America what it is today." Placed within the context of Reagan's pursuit of covert military activity in Central and South America, his pursuit of financial support for the military, and his belief in the absolute moral authority of the United States, regardless of its actions, the pictures from Abu Ghraib attested to the fact that Reagan may indeed have made it possible for the U.S. military to now conduct gross human rights violations in broad daylight.

Invoking Reagan in the Abu Ghraib "disappearing act" was also metaphorically appropriate for his legacy of direct, violent intervention in the governance of other nations, his pursuit of a domestic economic policy that amounted to class war, his unwillingness to address the AIDS crisis for the bulk of his presidency, and his administration's articulation of "normal" sexuality through its rhetoric of "family values," all of which have been alive and well under the Bush administration. In other words, the ghosts of 1980s American politics reappearing on television in place of the Abu Ghraib scandal reminded us that Bush Jr. and contemporary American conservatism are not simply the children of Bush Sr., but also the spawns of Reagan. After all, what happened at Abu Ghraib, and what continues to happen in American military detention facilities and prisons in the U.S. and around the world, have all emerged at the intersection of strategies that were developed for covert military operations under Reagan, and the implementation of domestic and international policies regarding sexuality that were articulated and initiated during the Reagan administration. In a sense, the intersections of these conjoined histories telescoped into the images of Iraqi men being raped and tortured by American soldiers.

There is no question that the existence of photographic evidence linking American soldiers directly with their crimes (rather than the relative abstraction of an unseen, off-camera force blowing people and buildings to bits) made media coverage of the scandal not only possible, but even more imperative. Unfortunately, while the history of covert military operations, official lies and secrecy were discussed at length during the months that the scandal was on air, the history of domestic U.S. policy regarding sexuality that enabled both this torture and the discourse surrounding it was all but forgotten. This resulted in a conflation of "perversion" and "torture" that made little sense, given the interventions of feminist and queer movements over the past thirty-odd years. Much of the analysis about Abu Ghraib viewed the photographs as a moral outrage because some depicted "homosexual acts." Others' outrage was fueled by declarations of the U.S. military perpetrating "perversion." Still others made an easy link between the photographs, perversion, pornography, and violence.

These characterizations of the use and documentation of torture at Abu Ghraib should give us pause for two reasons. First, the "perversion" story is bad for a genuine causal analysis, unless we want to be complicit in swallowing the "few bad apples" (subtext: "perverts") story, instead of assigning blame all along the chain of command, or unless the aim to subscribe to the equally less satisfying idea that "porn made them do it." The notion that Abu Ghraib is fundamentally about individual, abnormal sexual urges allows the specific policies and structures that facilitated these tortures—sexual and otherwise—to slip out of focus. Second, we need to take the "perversion" story apart because it shores up the old and dangerous idea that particular sexual forms are "degrading" and "humiliating" in and of themselves. (On May 7, 2004, the Washington Post reported that, "What happened at Abu Ghraib was entirely different. It was gratuitous sexual abuse, perversion for its own sake.")

With respect to the idea that there is something uniquely degrading about sexual torture, it should go without saying that the "sexual" (and other) acts forced upon prisoners at Abu Ghraib were both extremely degrading and intensely humiliating. Moreover, we concur with analysts who suggest that sexual and gendered forms of torture can be particularly, uniquely humiliating. However, it is imperative that we understand why this might be true, that we ask why these forms are so appealing to captors, and so shocking and disgusting to the public? By not asking "why," we risk relying on a "common sense" of homophobia and sexual moralism to explain away calculated strategies of humiliation, domination, and violence.

What demands to be said is that there is nothing degrading, per se, about either "homosexual" acts or femininity. What is degrading is being forced to do something sexual, and losing control over one's body in painful and intimately violent ways. In other words, analysis of the pictures from Abu Ghraib demand application of the feminist argument which says that rape is not sex. Rape is violence. Forcing hooded men to simulate feminine poses and fellatio is not homosexual sex. It is humiliation and violence, because it is a coerced performance of the men's captors being in control.

Prisoners were fundamentally violated when their bodies were exposed and manipulated in ways that were calculated to be sexually humiliating. As has long been a common practice of totalitarian police states, sexual humiliation of prisoners is used to create psychological isolation and break solidarity. For South Asians, this has resonances with the recent history of violence in Gujarat in 2002, with violence during the Sikh riots in 1984, and with partition era violence, among many other instances when sexual violence against women, especially, was used as an act of domination by one set of communities against another.

Despite these contexts for the use of sexual violence in the prison, the "perversion" story gained traction both from the perspective of officialdom, which continues to benefit from the idea that these tortures were an instance of "soldiers gone wild," and from the perspective of a viewing public that was consuming images of sexual torture at Abu Ghraib which heavily depicted homosexuality and women as sexual agents. Both of these kinds of images represent sexual forms that are already denigrated as "perverse," and therefore less systematic. If systematicity was read into the events surrounding Abu Ghraib, this was interpreted in terms of the benefits or damage that would accrue to the U.S. itself, and not to the Iraqis who were being held inside. For example, much coverage in the U.S. press suggested that the "perversions" forced on Muslim men at Abu Ghraib would damage the American image because these sexual forms are "especially degrading" for Muslim men. The conceptual slippage here is treacherous, because our outrage should not be based upon with whom the soldiers were forced to simulate sex, or who watched, or on generalizations of "Muslim men" as a category—the very act of forcing prisoners into sexual behaviors and scenes for the purpose of violation and humiliation is an outrage.

The fact of these slippages between perversion and violence are as important as their effects. One serious implication of maintaining the conflations between violence, pornography, perversion, etc. is that the relevance of domestic sexual politics and policies are erased from the equation. Here, again, we invoke the moment when it began and recall the specter of Ronald Reagan. Both the Bush and Reagan administrations distinguished themselves not only in their retrograde class politics, but also in their pursuit of policies regarding sexuality that are unparalleled in their dismissal of constitutionality, and in their pursuit of a Christian fundamentalist agenda that promotes a narrow view of normal/ "moral" sexuality. Under Reagan, this entailed promoting the idea that "pornography" and "violence" were one and the same. Using the Meese Commission, which was convened in May 1985 to "find new ways to control the problem of pornography," the Reagan administration attempted to ban pornography altogether, using the argument that pornography causes violence and, therefore, that "pornography is violence." The administration's attempt was defeated when it became clear that such a ban was open to being administered arbitrarily (the Commission, categorized materials that discussed homosexuality as "pornography"), and when it became clear that, regardless of its fair enforcement, such a ban would violate the First Amendment.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to torture at Abu Ghraib which depicts nudity and forced sex between male Muslim prisoners at the hands of American occupying forces in Iraq. How does the history of sexual politics in the U.S. and the legal history of pornography, tell us about what we are seeing of the occupation in Iraq? As we have already stated, the slippages between "perversion," "pornography" and violence are treacherous. In 1986, the Reagan administration productively used these slippages to advocate for a policy of censoring and ultimately eliminating anything it deemed to be outside the purview of heterosexual marriage. In 2004, slipping among "perversion," "pornography" and "torture" is even more dangerous. A few supposed "perverts" are singled out for prosecution, diverting focus from America's systematic policy of controlling prisoners through abuse both at home and abroad. Thanks to the politics of sexuality in the U.S., and the various forms of failed and successful legislation it has inspired (e.g., the repeal of the anti-sodomy law, the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, the failure to pass a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, the success of some states in passing same-sex marriage and domestic partnership legislation), we are well aware of the parameters of "perversion" in mainstream America.

Resisting the equation of "perversion" and "torture" means acknowledging that the use of sexual torture is the U.S. military's policy. It also means taking seriously the links between the tortures at Abu Ghraib and the "mundane" treatment of domestic prisoners in the U.S. These links include tactics and training, as well as continuity in the actual staff, as prison guards and police from the home scene bring their familiar "skills" to the international stage. It's time to put these pieces together. Abu Ghraib is about the effects of replacing the rule of law with moralism. It is about replacing the principles of "right" and "wrong" with the xenophobia and racism of believing that people are inherently "good" or "bad," and that a different set of rules apply to each.

As the election itself approaches, re-invoking Abu Ghraib also serves a broader goal in helping us to frame the big questions about this campaign. As progressives, we have been asking ourselves constantly, how will a Kerry administration be any different? If one of the differences between Kerry and Bush is Kerry's respect for the rule of law, then it follows that Kerry would respect international agreements, such as the Geneva Conventions, which prevent these kinds of prison abuses from taking place, and which certainly prevent an administration from being able wash its hands of responsibility by court martialing half a dozen low ranking military personnel. However, this does not resolve the other, much bigger question about the abuses of American economic and military power abroad, abuses which are on par with the agenda of extending any empire. As we work towards bringing America's war criminals to justice, we must also address ourselves to the broader system which empowered them at all.

Comments

According to Donald Rumsfeld, many more pictures and videotapes of the abuse at Abu Ghraib exist. Photos and videos were revealed by the Pentagon to lawmakers in a private viewing on May 12, 2004. Lawmakers disagreed over whether the additional photos were worse than those already released, with Senator Ron Wyden saying the new pictures were "significantly worse than anything that I had anticipated.-Missed Fortune
http://www.htcustomflags.com/The actuality of these slippages amid corruption and abandon are as important as their effects. One austere association of advancement the conflations amid violence, pornography, perversion, etc. is that the appliance of calm animal backroom and behavior are asleep from the equation

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