Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

"ABUSE AT ABU GHRAIB": NOW SHOWING AT A THEATER NEAR YOU

Every respectable American, from the president on down, is shocked ó shocked ó to find that Iraqi prisoners are being mistreated. As if no one knew that prisoners are abused and tortured to get information out of them.

The abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay has been widely documented. So was the torture used in Iraq to get information leading to the capture of Saddam Hussein. (Put "torture lite" into the www.commondreams.org search engine and see what comes up.) Could anyone who is paying the slightest attention think it wasnít happening in Iraq? Could the president think it wasnít happening in Iraq? He may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but I canít believe he is really that dumb.

Yet everyone from Bush on down is officially shocked ó shocked. This whole farce is all rather too much. But the show must go on. "Iraq War XVII: Abuse at Abu Ghraib." Everyone must follow the script. We have to play out every scene: shock, disgust, full investigation, punishment of "those responsible," contrition, firm resolve to stop future abuses.

Sooner than you think, we will reach the movieís heart-wrenching climax, the emotional catharsis. Thatís when we all stand back and admire the fine job weíve done of "cleaning up the mess." We share the pride of being Americans, who wonít stand for this sort of thing. We prove to ourselves (if not to the whole world) that "the American way" is all about reaching for a higher moral level, in war as well as in peace. Then, with our minds set at rest, we forget about it and go on with our daily business.

Of course the military intelligence (MI) professionals will go on about their business, too. They are in the business of collecting information. And they are not too fussy about how they get it.

Now they have run into a minor snag. There are some people in the U.S. military who really do have high moral standards. Itís not likely that they are shocked by the "softening up" methods in U.S. military prisons. They know how MI works. But they just couldnít stand by and watch it happen any more. (Thatís a good reminder not to treat "the military" as a monolithic bloc. The folks in any military unit are as diverse as the folks in your home town.)

Those good decent soldiers deserve our gratitude and sympathy. They know that, once the abuse becomes public, the script requires the sacrifice of scapegoats. They also know that a courageous whistleblower stands a good chance of ending up in the sacrificial flames. At the very least, whistleblowing will make it mighty tough to get that next promotion.

Worst of all, the whistleblowers know that their brave act is not likely to make any permanent difference. Yes, MI will have to be a bit more discrete -- at least for a while, until the current show ends and the fuss dies down. That will save some Iraqis prisoners some suffering for some time. The whistleblowers should feel good about that.

In the end, though, the system demands its information, by any means necessary. No doubt, that demand comes down from the highest levels. Now the same highest levels add another demand: Donít get caught. Donít let your methods become publicly known again. Itís a tough challenge. But, hey. Thatís why MI hires professionals.

If the professionals can learn to be a bit more discrete, the current drama, with all its "shock -- shock," will actually help them. The military will soon tell us that the show is over: the problems have all been taken care of; there is nothing more to worry about; itís time to go home. Most Americans will believe it. So the public eye will turn away from military prisons. As long as the abuses are not bad enough to upset the conscientious soldiers working in the prisons, no one will complain. Then MI is home free. Its show can go on undisturbed.

Beneath this oh-so-serious drama, there is a rich comic plot. The whole thing turns on a series of jokes. Abu Ghraib was once a Baíathist torture center. The U.S. is torturing and killing Iraqis to prevent the return of that Saddam-ite regime, we are told with a straight face. Well, we had to torture the village to save it. Get it? Ha-ha.

Hereís another joke. Using torture to get "intelligence" just isnít very intelligent. Information given under torture usually turns out to be false, misleading, or useless. Most of the victims at Abu Ghraib donít have any information to give. They were just picked up in random roundups. Most of them probably make up stuff to get their interrogators stop the abuse.

Surely the interrogators know that. So do their superiors higher up the chain of command. Which suggests that information may not be the main point at all. Most Iraqis know or suspect what goes on at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. and British prisons in Iraq. They know itís terrifying. And thatís the point. The prison abuse is just one more way to terrorize the Iraqi people into submission to their conquerors.

Why do they have to submit? Why does MI have to get all this information in the first place? Nobody in the military, the government, or the mainstream media talks about that. Nobody asks whether U.S. domination of Iraq, permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, and the privatization of Iraqís economy is important enough to justify torture at Abu Ghraib. Thatís pretty funny, too.

The ultimate joke, of course, is that terror and torture wonít work, as everyone can see. Even the Americans at Abu Ghraib know it, since the prison was recently attacked by mortar fire, and it could be attacked again any day. The more the U.S. tries to terrorize the Iraqis, the more they will rally to the forces of resistance. Even a dim bulb like our president should be able to figure that one out.

Which suggests that dominating Iraq is only part of the purpose here. Another goal is to play out, yet again, the great epic called "America." "See America lead the world. Cheer as America meets its responsibility as the sole remaining superpower. Thrill to America fulfilling its destiny." And forget the massive problems that go unattended here at home.

Sooner or later, "Iraq War XXIV: America Tucks Its Tail Between Its Legs and Runs Away" will come to a theater near you. The joke may be on us. But for the thousands of innocents who will suffer needlessly between now and then, it will be a genuine tragedy.

 


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