Exporting America’s Shame

Allegations in Iraq reflect the violent, abusive prisons that have arisen in the U.S.

President Bush has asserted that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib “does not reflect the nature of the American people.”

“That’s not the way we do things in America,” he added.

In terms of aspirations, Bush is certainly correct: Americans generally do not regard themselves as arrogant, abusive, violent, mean, petty and ignoble. As a matter of empirical, verifiable fact, however, the best social scientific evidence suggests that the president is simply wrong on both counts.

In 1971, for example, Stanford psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo initiated an experiment in which participating Stanford students were designated either as prisoners or guards, with guards told to maintain order. After only a few days, the project had to be terminated prematurely because the guards were, with no apparent motivation other than fulfilling their roles, becoming uncomfortably abusive toward the prisoners. What does that say about our “nature”?

In another famous experiment, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram told subjects to give electric shocks to a victim in a learning experiment. As the victim — an actor in another room who was not actually being shocked — gave incorrect answers, the participants were asked to turn the voltage up, even to where the dial read “danger,” a point at which the victim could be heard screaming. Although often reluctant, two-thirds of the subjects continued to follow orders to administer shocks.

Given that, what’s so surprising about the fact that in 2004, reservists controlling the relevant tier in Abu Ghraib prison would — in an effort to follow orders — agree to “soften” the Iraqi detainees for questioning?

If the president was wrong about the nature of the American people, he was no less wrong about the way things are done by Americans.

America vs. Human Rights

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

At the outset of the occupation, it was earnestly argued that the Iraqi people would welcome and benefit from imposition of U.S.-style democracy and freedoms. The American public — and, I suspect, most of the world — believed that Americans could do a better job of running a prison such as Abu Ghraib. We’re not arbitrary, abusive, unaccountable or unjust, right? Indeed, last June, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski told a reporter that Americans were making living conditions so much better at Abu Ghraib that she was concerned prisoners “wouldn’t want to leave.”

But again, we are deluding ourselves. The hard fact is that the U.S. did install in Iraq an American-style approach to prison management. Like the U.S. prison system, it is underfunded and inadequately supervised, lacks civilian oversight and accountability and is secretive and tolerant of inmate abuse until evidence of mistreatment is pushed into the public light. That, regrettably, is the American model.

Over the last four decades, political leaders here at home have committed themselves to incarcerating inmates at rates that ultimately rivaled the former Soviet Union and repressive Middle Eastern regimes. Prisons have grown overcrowded and understaffed.

At the same time, there has been no commensurate commitment to protecting prisoner rights or upholding even minimal standards. Both state and federal legislatures, with the complicity of federal courts, have continually trimmed avenues of legal redress for inmates subject to abuse.

For its part, the public was fed the myth that prisoners were coddled, and accepted on faith that inmates were treated fairly. The public faith was interrupted only when graphic images materialized as evidence or by guards “rolling over.”

Rights For All

Amnesty International’s Rights For All report on U.S. human rights abuses includes a section on prison issues

Regarding Abu Ghraib, testimonial evidence of abuse was reported by no fewer than half a dozen organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Until photos were shown on “60 Minutes II,” though, they were merely allegations and, therefore, not the subject of public concern and remedial action.

So, what has been shown in Abu Ghraib that has not already been seen in the U.S.? Recently, images of cages in which California Youth Authority wards were locked up for as much as 23 hours a day were broadcast. In 2001, Human Rights Watch reported in detail how extensively rape is tolerated in U.S. prisons.

The Eddie Dillard case, in which I represented the inmate, revealed a paper trail with respect to one prolific cell rapist responsible for more than 30 reported incidents of attempted or completed sexual assaults at six different California prisons. Still, the predator was assigned more cellmates.

The accumulated result: A federal district court judge in Northern California has threatened to take over the California Department of Corrections because it can’t break the code of silence among its guards and take responsibility for the integrity of its mission.

In the last decade, the department has restricted visits by family and journalists to the remote locations where prisons have been scattered, on the ground that the press might glamorize prison life. Or has it acted to impede reporting of underfunding and abuse?

In the shadow of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, it’s easy to understand why much of the world looks upon Americans as craven and arrogant. In so many ways, the United States’ interests and international image have been harmed as we act on our aspirations and self-congratulatory beliefs instead of a cold, hard view of reality, including our own limitations.

No less a figure than Winston Churchill famously said that “treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of civilization of any country.” If Churchill is right, so, at the moment, are America’s critics.

- Robert L. Bastian Jr. is a Los Angeles lawyer.

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