Why Did Abu Ghraib Happen?

Sunday, 16 May 2004

The prisoner abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib prison continues to damage America's reputation around the world, above all in the Arab world. Images of grinning American soldiers, men and women alike, posing with naked Iraqi prisoners fly in the face of American attempts to claim moral superiority to the rest of the world. Even Saddam Hussein didn't humiliate his prisoners in such a fashion. Other pictures show dogs being used to intimidate prisoners, prisoners hooked up to electrodes, and prisoners forced to simulate (or engage in?) homosexual acts. Although the Bush administration would like to make people believe that only a few bad soldiers were responsible for these abuses, it is clear that they were ordered to treat the prisoners as they did and that the orders came from the top, very likely directly from General Ricardo Sanchez and General Geoff Miller, former commander of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There is likewise no doubt that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, while possibly unaware of the specific despicable acts of abuse that were transpiring in the prison, approved the overall approach to the treatment of prisoners. Even though many people have called on Rumsfeld to resign, or for Bush to fire him, ultimate responsibility for what happened in Abu Ghraib lies with George W. Bush, not just in the general sense because he is at the top of the chain of command, but because policies he explicitly approved led to the abuses.

The problem of prisoner abuse is not limited to Abu Ghraib prison. Reports have circulated for months of the mistreatment of prisoners throughout Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay. The Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations have all documented cases of prisoner abuse, torture, and murder. At the root of the problem is the decision by the White House to treat the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners as optional. Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are labeled "enemy combatants," a contrived, illegal designation. Two categories of people belong in prison: criminals and prisoners of war. Both have certain well-defined rights. The Bush administration, by sidestepping the Geneva Conventions and refusing to give POWs their rights, created an atmosphere that was conducive to abuse of prisoners.

Neglect of prisoners' rights is consistent with the overall Bush approach to human rights in general. Two American citizens are currently being held without access to lawyers, in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, on the grounds that they are--once again--enemy combatants. No. Either they are criminals, or they are enemy soldiers and thus POWs, or they should be released immediately. The Bush administration's disregard for human rights is demonstrated clearly by its support for the USA PATRIOT act, a law rushed through Congress just six weeks after the September 11 attacks that rescinds many basic rights to U.S. citizens and others living in the U.S. The speed with which the bill was prepared for Congressional approval strongly suggests that a very similar bill was already in preparation even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the bill's most vocal supporter, is now trying to get Congress to strip even more civil rights from U.S. citizens. He also led an assault on legitimate Arab and Muslim residents of the U.S. (though not, of course, the Bush family's special friends the Bin Ladens of Saudi Arabia, who were whisked out of the U.S. without being investigated) in the aftermath of 9/11. An administration with such a low regard for basic civil and human rights set the stage for the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Another characteristic of Bush's rule that led to Abu Ghraib is a disregard for world opinion. "Disregard" is really too mild a word. "Disdain" or "Contempt" would be more accurate. Before becoming president, Bush had rarely traveled outside the U.S., and his knowledge of world affairs was abysmal. Throughout his term, Bush has demonstrated an extreme provincialism and an absolute belief in the superiority--intellectually, morally, and militarily--of the U.S. in comparison to all other countries. Early in his term Bush withdrew the U.S. signature from the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, evidence that he believes that U.S. citizens are above international law. On other international fronts, Bush rejected the Kyoto accords on the reduction of greenhouse gases, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and rejected the treaty to ban the use of land mines, just to name a few examples of anti-internationalism. His most egregious rejection of international opinion, of course, was his unwarranted and illegal (under international law) attack on Iraq, despite opposition by the vast majority of other countries. Bush believes that the U.S. is free to flaunt both international opinion and international law. This belief led directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Many other Americans are complicit in creating an atmosphere in which abuses like those at Abu Ghraib can occur. Others in the administration--including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Ashcroft--share with Bush the blame for fomenting an attitude of libertinism with respect to international law and laxity with respect to civil rights. But it is not just the government that is to blame. Right-wing spewers of racism and xenophobia on talk radio are coconspirators. Rush Limbaugh wonders what the big deal is about American soldiers letting off a little steam in the Abu Ghraib prison, and so, apparently, do many of his listeners. Neal Boortz jokingly suggested that American women parade naked through the streets of Muslim neighborhoods so that faithful Muslim men would have to kill themselves (not only is this racist, it betrays incredible ignorance of Islam). Millions of Americans listen to this tripe day in and day out, and most listeners seem to approve the diatribes of Limbaugh, Boortz, and their ilk. Is it any wonder that soldiers can be found who will abuse Muslim prisoners? To quote Shakespeare, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Right-wing talk radio jocks have the right to rant in whatever fashion they see fit, but until Americans--conservative, moderate, and liberal alike--turn off their radios and say "enough is enough," much of the blame for the situation in Abu Ghraib will lie with us, the ordinary citizens of America, as well.

It is not enough to point the finger of blame at those responsible for the climate of racism, provincialism, and misplaced moral superiority that led to Abu Ghraib. We must also offer solutions so that these abuses do not occur again.

First, we must get out of Iraq now, the sooner the better. Bush and Rumsfeld say we need to stay the course, that everything is going just fine. Yeah, right. Senator John Kerry and others in Congress say that U.S. forces in Iraq must be reinforced in order to stabilize the country, then we can transfer power to the Iraqis. In case these people haven't noticed, the presence of Americans in Iraq is what started the problem. Giving Iraqis inclined to kill Americans more targets doesn't sound like a good solution. The problem with both these approaches is that they assume that Americans can win the war in Iraq. What those in both these camps don't seem to grasp is that we've already lost the war. The Iraqis hate us, and so does the rest of the Arab world. The only way to heal the deep wounds we've inflicted is to pull our troops, and American contractors, out now. We can send a check to the Iraqis to hire whomever they want to repair the damage we've done to their country. Odds are, they won't hire Halliburton.

Second, we must scrap the discredited, dangerous, and immoral foreign policy of imperialism adopted by the Bush administration and replace it with one more in line with Bush's campaign promise to enact a "more humble foreign policy." In particular, we must renounce the right to attack other countries preemptively without U.N. approval, and we must stop our practice of bullying and bribing other countries to support our policies in the Security Council and the General Assembly.

Third, we must curtail the power of the imperial presidency, returning to the constitutional principle that only Congress is empowered to declare war. Of course, we must also elect representatives and senators who will accept the responsibility given them as a body by the Constitution, not delegate it to a single individual. Moreover, we must adopt Dennis Kucinich's proposal to create a Department of Peace, making peacemaking a top government priority in every administration, Democratic, Republican, or other.

Fourth, the mainstream media, which the right claims is liberal but which is in fact dominated by huge conglomerates that donate primarily to conservative causes, must report fairly on the loss of basic rights by ordinary Americans (did you know that the government can find our what books you read?), foreign residents, and prisoners in American prisons abroad. Instead of having hour-long special "news" reports on Michael Jackson or the series finale of Friends, maybe news organizations should report on the news that affects people at home and abroad.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison are a tragedy, and people of conscience must take steps to see that it is never repeated. Those responsible, all the way up the chain of command, must pay for their misdeeds. Victims must be compensated. Americans must leave Iraq until invited back by a legitimate Iraqi government. Citizens must demand basic civil rights for themselves and others, slamming the door on Big Brother. Abu Ghraib happened because we let it happen. And it will happen again unless we stand up to the perpetrators and say, "Never again."

© Copyright 2004, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology