Tuesday, 25 May 2004

The Ugly Face Of The War On Terror

For a long time - at least six decades - photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what people recall of events, and it now seems likely that the defining association of people everywhere with the rotten war that the Americans launched preemptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib.

The slogans and phrases fielded by the Bush administration and its defenders have been chiefly aimed at limiting a public relations disaster - the dissemination of the photographs - rather than dealing with the complex crimes of leadership, policies and authority revealed by the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of the reality on to the photographs themselves. The administration's initial response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs - as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict. There was also the avoidance of the word torture. The prisoners had possibly been the objects of "abuse", eventually of "humiliation" - that was the most to be admitted. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference. "And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word." Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word "genocide" while the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda was being carried out 10 years ago that meant the American government had no intention of doing anything. To call what took place in Abu Ghraib - and, almost certainly, in other prisons in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in Guantanamo - by its true name, torture, would likely entail a public investigation, trials, court martials, dishonourable discharges, resignation of senior military figures and responsible cabinet officials, and substantial reparations to the victims. Such a response to our misrule in Iraq would contradict everything this administration has invited the American public to believe about the virtue of American intentions and America's right to unilateral action on the world stage in defence of its interests and its security.

Even when the president was finally compelled, as the damage to America's reputation everywhere in the world widened and deepened, to use the "sorry" word, the focus of regret still seemed the damage to America's claim to moral superiority, to its hegemonic goal of bringing "freedom and democracy" to the benighted Middle East. Yes, Mr Bush said in Washington on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families". But, he went on, he was "as equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America".

To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times, "unfair". A war, an occupation, is inevitably a huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions representative and others not? The issue is not whether they are done by individuals (ie, not by "everybody"). All acts are done by individuals. The question is not whether the torture was the work of a few individuals but whether it was systematic. Authorised. Condoned. Covered up. It was - all of the above. The issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely.

Considered in this light, the photographs are us. That is, they are representative of distinctive policies and of the fundamental corruptions of colonial rule. The Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, committed identical atrocities and practised torture and sexual humiliation on despised, recalcitrant natives. Add to this corruption, the mystifying, near-total unpreparedness of the American rulers of Iraq to deal with the complex realities of an Iraq after its "liberation" - that is, conquest. And add to that the overarching, distinctive doctrines of the Bush administration, namely that the United States has embarked on an endless war (against a protean enemy called "terrorism"), and that those detained in this war are "unlawful combatants" - a policy enunciated by Rumsfeld as early as January 2002 - and therefore "do not have any rights" under the Geneva convention, and you have a perfect recipe for the cruelties and crimes committed against the thousands incarcerated without charges and access to lawyers in American-run prisons that have been set up as part of the response to the attack of September 11 2001. Endless war produces the option of endless detention, which is subject to no judicial review.

So, then, the real issue is not the photographs but what the photographs reveal to have happened to "suspects" in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken - with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the second world war took photographs of the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare. (See a book just published, Photographing the Holocaust by Janina Struk.) If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs - collected in a book entitled Without Sanctuary - of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show smalltown Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

If there is a difference, it is a difference created by the increasing ubiquity of photographic actions. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies - taken by a photographer, in order to be collected, stored in albums; displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of pictures - less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession of most soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers - recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities - and swapping images among themselves, and emailing them around the globe.

There is more and more recording of what people do, by themselves. Andy Warhol's ideal of filming real events in real time - life isn't edited, why should its record be edited? - has become a norm for millions of webcasts, in which people record their day, each in his or her own reality show. Here I am - waking and yawning and stretching, brushing my teeth, making breakfast, getting the kids off to school. People record all aspects of their lives, store them in computer files, and send the files around. Family life goes with the recording of family life - even when, or especially when, the family is in the throes of crisis and disgrace. (Surely the dedicated, incessant home-videoing of one another, in conversation and monologue, over many years was the most astonishing material in the recent documentary about a Long Island family embroiled in paedophilia charges, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans [2003].) An erotic life is, for more and more people, what can be captured on video.

To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life, and therefore, to go on with one's life, oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's non-stop attentions. But it is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture one is inflicting on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the primal satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.

You ask yourself how someone can grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being - drag a naked Iraqi man along the floor with a leash? set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering, naked prisoners? rape and sodomise prisoners? force shackled hooded prisoners to masturbate or commit sexual acts with each other? beat prisoners to death? - and feel naive in asking the questions, since the answer is, self-evidently: people do these things to other people. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have permission. When they are told or made to feel that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what Mr Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and heart of America".

It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the games of killing that are the principal entertainment of young males to the violence that has become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant kick. From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools - depicted in Richard Linklater's film Dazed and Confused (1993) - to the rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation to be found in working-class bar culture, and institutionalised in our colleges and universities as hazing - America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are, increasingly, seen as good entertainment, fun.

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