Shocked by the torture images? Then don’t miss a new documentary about the ‘school’ run by the US Army. John Patterson reports.
As the pictures have poured out of Abu Ghraib over the last fortnight, rightwing pundits in the American media have in unison performed that hallowed ritual of teenage girls who don’t want to hear bad news about rotten hair-dos or cheating boyfriends – essentially by sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming: “lalalalalalalalalalalala!” No, insisted one identikit tall-in-the-saddle Bush partisan this week, “our values are still the right values – and they will be the Iraqi values.”
Another chimed in with the well-worn amen-corner dirge about “our enemies”: “They hate our life and they hate our democratic values.” And we wonder why. Aren’t they grateful for all the hot democracy and freedom we’ve been exporting their way lately?
If America, as it claims, wants to build a new Iraq in Uncle Sam’s image, then it couldn’t have done a better job than it has so far. They’ve already installed a brand, spanking new American-style political system, which is to say one rotten with preferment, patronage and nepotism, riddled with conflicts of interest and corporate corruption, and utterly lacking any convincing mandate from the electorate.
We’ve favoured these ungrateful bastards with all the benefits of American insularity and racism, with the fabled fondness of the Bush White House for open government and a free and balanced press (the whole Falluja hee-haw kicked off when troops closed down Al Sadr’s newspaper), and with our mania for privatisation, which extends to the hiring of some 20,000 overpaid mercenaries who can be held accountable to no one, not even for rape or murder.
But nowhere does the image of true American values loom larger than in the nauseating photos of abuse and humiliation from Abu Ghraib. George Bush made a point of reminding us that: “Saddam’s torture chambers are closed, his rape-rooms are gone.”
Far from being closed, the torture chambers and rape rooms are apparently just “under new management”. Behind these images lie more images, from Hollywood and from US TV, that seem somehow to encourage and even shape the prevailing mentality at Abu Ghraib.
There is the understanding, based in reality but endlessly recycled in TV’s Oz and The Shawshank Redemption, that going to prison will involve being gang-raped by large men who’ll break your jaw to make sure you don’t bite back. There is the gradual numbing of the audience for, say, 24 or Alias, to the idea that torture is not a legitimate instrument of modern warfare; in certain circumstances it’s just hunky dory.
Among the images from Abu Ghraib and elsewhere that still remain unseen by the public, there are the dread echoes of American hardcore pornography, particularly of bondage and sadism: a man forced to simulate masturbation near another prisoner’s mouth, rumours of the rape of women prisoners by US servicemen, the predominance of humiliating (and to Muslims, deeply blasphemous) nudity everywhere.
As Seymour Hersh, the investigator who uncovered this whole sorry story, has pointed out, the result of all this is that the Arab world now thinks of America as a perverted, genitally-fixated society exporting its ideas about sex to a devout Iraq.
You can’t get an accurate picture of what “exporting democracy” means by listening to Bush or Cheney, who seem to loathe democracy and freedom for anyone but their crooked mates and their minatory corporate backers. Better to seek out documentaries like The Corporation, a history and indictment of the titular business entity, or Hidden in Plain Sight, a searing exposé of the US Army’s “School of The Americas” at Fort Benning, where a number of Latin America’s more celebrated dictators and secret policemen received lengthy instruction in the application of electricity to testicles and footwear to faces.
The Corporation picked up the World Cinema award at this year’s Sundance film festival. The World Cinema award, by the way, was sponsored this year by Coca-Cola. The corporation, the ideal social unit in George Bush’s warped conception of a free and just society, is convincingly depicted as a cancer on global society, exporting perverted, 19th-century American business ideas – child labour, zero healthcare or union representation, 14-hour days, etc – to pockets of the world so impoverished they can’t negotiate terms.
In America, of course, prison-building and management is now a largely corporate sphere of endeavour, so look for some of those psychopathic urges to arise in a place like Abu Ghraib. Anyone who’s seen Hidden in Plain Sight could have predicted everything lately revealed about the new prison system in Iraq, and indeed the entire invasion-occupation farce.
For many decades the US army oversaw the oppression of large areas of Central and South America thanks to graduates of the School of the Americas, who included Noriega and half of Pinochet’s military command structure. Such operatives were deeply mired in the CIA’s decades-long Operation Condor, which was a fancy Andean-sounding monicker for the continent-wide deployment of American-sponsored death squads.
These days we have Plan Colombia, “a counter-insurgency programme masquerading as a counter-narcotics programme”, in the words of one retired CIA officer. The school was finally closed down in 2002, after years of protests. Naturally it instantly reopened under another name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It has exactly the same function. So much for 9/11 changing the world.
Last week I saw Hector Babenco’s new movie, Carandiru, which focuses on Brazil’s Sao Paolo prison where 8,000 convicts thronged, until its closure and demolition two years ago, in a space meant to hold 3,500.
The film uncovers a world where prisoners are largely self-governing; conjugal visits are permitted, and the cells are as vivid and colourful as the prisoners they confine. Even after the film’s conclusion, a recreation of the infamous massacre in 1992 of 111 mutinous but unarmed inmates by the military, I felt I’d still rather be locked up in Carandiru than in Abu Ghraib or in any American penitentiary. Which is appalling.
May 14, 2004