May 07, 2004
We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us
In his opening statement at today’s Senate hearing on the Abu Ghraib viciousness, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said, “This free society will not condone and cannot tolerate this type of depraved behavior.”
No doubt he believes this, and no doubt most Americans listening to him believe it as well. But no effort to correct the horrors of Abu Ghraib is likely to succeed if it is based on beliefs that are the opposite of the truth.
Let me put it plainly. The people of America and those who govern them both condone and tolerate this type of depraved behavior. If we did not, we would not allow it to happen every day in our prisons, here and abroad.
In 1971 New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller butchered 29 inmates and ten hostages during an uprising at Attica Correctional Facility. Troopers and guards then carried out an orgy of torture, humiliation, and mistreatment of the survivors. Rockefeller was not brought to trial, not impeached in disgrace. He was elevated to the vice presidency of the United States.
In 1997 a group of protestors locked themselves together in the office of Republican Congressman Frank Riggs in Eureka, California. When they would not leave, police sprayed a solution of hot pepper into the eyes of four women, and then swabbed it directly on their eyeballs with Q-tips. Other sheriff’s deputies filmed the torture, for later use in a training film.
U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker later dismissed a suit for damages brought by the torture victims. He held that Eureka police had used “reasonable force” on the locked and helpless protesters.
If I have time tonight, I’ll add links to the harrowing transcript of that “training film.” And I could add — as anyone could, with a half-hour on Google — dozens of illustrations of torture in American police stations and jails.
We are unlikely to bring about any correction of the Bush administration’s “law and order” and “war on terror” cruelty until we recognize that it arises from our own tolerance, in our own prisons, of behavior just as sickening.
Posted by Jerome Doolittle at May 07, 2004 02:08 PM
If you listen closely to what the politicians have to say, they often unconciously blame "the pictures".
Nice little piece on Democratic Underground that explains why anybody is paying any attention to this stuff.
Whatever happened to the good old days, when a Thomas Paine could move the world?
"But let's not kid ourselves. If there had been no photographs, if all it had been was words on paper or the recorded testimony of witnesses and victims, there would be barely a ripple in the public consciousness. A few leftist and liberal outlets would cover it, there would be reports in The Nation or from Amnesty International but that's about it. And if 60 Minutes had shown only interviews and highlighted quotes from reports, nothing much would have happened.
There would be denials of course, but much of the response would also have been low-balling and justification, not only from those who were involved but from the media and much of the American public. Instead of "disgusting," "degrading" and "inhumane" on news broadcasts, we'd be hearing "troubling," "disturbing" or, that word most often used by the mainstream media to low-ball our own atrocities, "regrettable." "
A related problem is that there are so may (possibly thousands of people who have been incarcerated without any justification for their arrest or detention). We seem to be picking up people willy nilly without regard to whether or not they constitute a threat or whether they have useful information. It's almost as if soldiers have a quota system to show they are doing their jobs. Then these people are dumped into overcrowded, understaffed prisons and guarded and interrogated by undertrained people, some of whom are former truck drivers or pizza parlor managers.
But as you aptly point out, Jerry, the problems aren't just in Iraq. In addition to the abuses that have gone on in the good old U.S.A., we have another problem, the sheer numbers of people we have incarcerated:
From The Sentencing Project
June 20, 2003
The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported that there are now two million
people in the nation’s prisons and jails.1 This figure is a record high and represents the
product of an unprecedented 30-year rise in the use of incarceration. The national inmate
population is now six times that of the approximately 330,000 total of 1972, just prior to
the inception of the modern day “get tough” movement. As seen below, these
developments arose following a nearly 50-year trend of relative stability in the use of
The absolute figures are dramatic in themselves, but take on even greater
significance in comparison with other nations. In this regard, the U.S. rate of
incarceration of 702 inmates per 100,000 population represents not only a record high,
but situates this nation as the world leader in its use of imprisonment. The continuous
rise in the prison population in the U.S. has vaulted this country ahead of our old Cold
War rival Russia to become the world’s leading incarcerator.
For comparative purposes, the U.S. now locks up its citizens at a rate 5-8 times
that of the industrialized nations to which we are most similar, Canada and western
Europe. Thus, as seen in the accompanying chart, the rate per 100,000 population is 139
in England/Wales, 116 in Canada, 91 in Germany, and 85 in France.2
The problem is the pictures. What we do here at home with our prisons is our business, a sort of "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." To the outside world we are a tolerant, peaceful and humane people. We are Americans and have an image to maintain. Unfortunately, the photos betray that sentiment. The difference and the problem for all the people that say, it goes on and happens everywhere, is that it is kept quite and we don't really know what is happening in our home prisons or say Guantanamo. The Press has a vested interest in keeping our/their image safe, as well. The problem is that "amateurs" have been handling the prisons in Iraq and it has caused a major public relations problem for the US. Our image has been tarnished. Which is why Rumsfeld has to go. Not because people were abused, but because he failed to control it and keep it secret.