America’s problem

Abu Ghraib abuses

It was only last month that the US army formally asserted that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison consisted of “aberrations” that could not be put down to systemic problems. This week, however, two official reports have painted a more disturbing picture. The reports, one for the Pentagon chaired by the former defence secretary James Schlesinger, and the other for the US army by Generals George Fay and Anthony Jones, describe a situation in which the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners was more extensive than previously acknowledged and in which military leadership was found seriously wanting.

The abuses sadly bear repetition. Forced nudity was common, the generals’ report confirms, and stemmed from the importation to Abu Ghraib of techniques used in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. “They simply carried forward the use of nudity into the Iraqi theatre of operations,” General Fay observes. Prisoners were frequently stripped and hooded, then left in extreme heat or cold for hours. One detainee was handcuffed naked and forced to crawl on his stomach as US soldiers urinated and spat on him; later he was sodomised. The importation process from Guantanamo also led to the use of dogs to frighten prisoners. In one case, US military personnel held an unmuzzled dog within inches of two naked and screaming teenage Iraqis and discussed whether the prisoners could be terrified into losing control of their bowels.

These were acts of “brutality and purposeless sadism”, Schlesinger says. The abuses continued for several months. They were not, the report stresses, “just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards.” Generals Fay and Jones confirm that. At least 34 US officers, including the two most senior figures in US military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, are implicated in at least 44 cases of recorded abuse over a period of at least six months, they found. Some of them took place during interrogations. “There were a few instances where torture was being used,” General Fay told a press conference this week. The causes of the culture of abuse were many, he said. They ranged from “morally corrupt soldiers and civilians” to lack of discipline at several levels and “a failure or lack of leadership by multiple echelons”. Mr Schlesinger goes even further: “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels” was involved, he found. The context of everything that happened at Abu Ghraib was the Pentagon’s strategic error of assuming “benign stability” in post-invasion Iraq. The failure to anticipate a major insurgency, and to adapt when it occurred, were fundamental.

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

The reports stop short of placing direct responsibility at the feet of the highest officials involved in Iraq strategy. But the cumulative effect of the two reports points clearly in that direction. It was not just individuals who failed. It was a system. Those who are in charge of that system cannot escape responsibility for abuses that debase not just the US but its allies, including Britain. But it is not just Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush who need to look into their souls. The same goes for a lot of Americans, and a lot of American men in particular. A Pew Center poll last week showed that 43% of all Americans, 48% of American men, 54% of American men aged under 50, and 58% of people intending to vote for Mr Bush in November believe that torture of suspected terrorists can “often or sometimes” be justified. The things that happened in Abu Ghraib happened because individual Americans broke the law. But they also happened because too many Americans are prepared to look in the other direction or even actively support such abuses. America is a society with a problem. That problem erupted in Abu Ghraib. America has begun to address it. But it must not slacken off now.

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