Matt Siegfried exposes the systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners as an extension of the US penal system. This article originally appeared in Fourthwrite (see p27).
The photographs of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners have become symbols of American conceit, American hypocrisy and brutality. The folly of the Iraq adventure seems to be summed up by the pyres of naked, bound and hooded men smiled over by the missionaries of American democracy. More than one right wing commentator in the United States has likened these acts to college pranks.
Most of the world, however, fails to see the humour in employing attack dogs, surgical gloves, digital cameras, sodomising broom sticks and duct tape to torture prisoners, many of them guilty of only being Iraqis, in an orgy of power exercise. The self described experts on the Arab mind of the North American press have repeatedly told us that sexual humiliation is especially damaging to the Arab male with their allegedly macho and homophobic Islamic culture. After all, if US prisoners are any indication, we Americans have a much greater tolerance for rape than those testy Iraqis do. In this, as in all things, if only they could be a little more like us these little misunderstandings would disappear.
It must be said that these revelations have had the effect they have, swinging important segments of the American population against the administration of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush and casting their re-election in doubt, because of two concrete factors. The first is that they were photographed.
All indications are that these photographs were taken to humiliate and blackmail the prisoners photographed or to frighten other prisoners into submission or as souvenirs. How, in the age of the internet, the Military Intelligence units thought that these would remain in obscurity is a testimony to the arrogance of the imperial mindset. Mountains of words could not have had the same effect.
The grinning faces and thumbs up of the torturers are so damning precisely because they are not faceless names. They are recognisable as our neighbours, work mates, parents and children. Society has raised these monsters. America itself is indicted by the very normalcy of those that carried out and continue to carry out these crimes.
The second and more important factor is the strength of the resistance to the occupation. If this story had broken in the context of a war that had been going well for the United States it would not have had nearly the power it has had. Since the capture of Saddam the resistance has grown dramatically belying the myths and half-truths of the mouthpieces for American empire.
The resistance has proven to be varied, contradictory, resourceful and popular. America has responded brutally to this growth and in the process has served as a recruiting sergeant for the resistance. A predictable turn of events in the context of an occupation whose aims are at odd with the interests and desires of the now vast majority of the Iraqi population.
The Iraqi resistance has not yet found a common political or organisational voice. It is possible, even likely, that it will not. Elements of the opposition are undoubtedly criminal or reactionary fundamentalist. Elements employ tactics that run the gamut from counter productive to counter revolutionary. Could it be any other way? A brutal occupation will breed a brutal resistance. Every attempt at colonialism in its bloody history is witness to this dynamic. Though now many more are entering the ranks of the resistance out of a desire to protect their homes, communities and country from the rapacious onslaught of American tanks bulldozing the way for American corporations.
After the fall of Baghdad in April of last year there was not only speculation but also plans for the US military to move on Damascus and possibly Tehran and Pyongyang. The United States aimed at a long term colonial ownership of Iraq. In the face of growing Iraqi resistance the US ruling class has, for now abandoned the possibility of direct military confrontation with Syria, Iran and North Korea. At the endgame of a relentless assault by Israel the resistance in Palestine has been given a moral and morale boost by the people of Iraq.
The occupation itself is in doubt as the US is increasingly unable to force its agenda even on the most pliant of Iraqis. Looking to cede its Iraq quagmire to the United Nations (whose guise the United States has utilised in numerous previous imperial crusades) the fig leaf of the UN would placate European and Arab capitals but it is unlikely to convince the Iraqi people that the occupation has ended. In spite of the violence and pain inflicted in the course of its insurgency against US imperialism’s aggression the resistance in Iraq has already and undoubtedly saved many lives.
While the US media has, by and large, still refused to utter the word
torture when describing the actions at Abu Ghraib, Mazar-e-Sharif, Guantanamo Bay and so many places in between that is clearly the definition of those actions. As more and more soldiers return from tours with stories of abuse, of rape and murder on a wide scale it is clear that these acts were sanctioned. They were routine. They were systematic. They came far too easily to some soldiers, Reservists and National Guards.
In fact some of the actions of the accused were already taught to and learned by them in the rape camps and torture chambers of the American penal system. One of the soldiers facing charges, Corporal Charles Graner, worked as a prison guard at Pennsylvania’s notorious SCI Greene where African American revolutionary Mumia Abu Jamal sits on death row and site of numerous allegations of abuse.
Never taken more seriously than a crude joke on late night television rape has long been considered part of the sentence for those imprisoned in this country. The Struckman-Johnson study of prisons in four mid-western states concludes
one in five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. And one in ten male inmates reported that they had been raped. Extrapolating those percentages nationally makes for jaw-dropping number of prisoners sexually assaulted (400,000+ or raped in prison (200,000+)
Any one who has done time in an American prison could describe innumerable instances of abuse that are all but identical to the horrors of Abu Ghraib’s Wing 1A. From solitary confinement to four-point shackles and electric shocks to daily strip and cavity searches, the degrading treatment of human beings at the hands of other human beings is seen as normal, even necessary, in American society.
The United States is a country that has well over two million people currently in prison or jail (1 in 75 male adults) with another four and a half million people on probation or parole. A country that criminalises entire communities placing more black men in jail than college (1 in 5 black men will go to jail in their lives). A country where the “War on Drugs” places millions of its own citizens outside the jurisdiction of justice. A country where the imprisonment of its people is a giant industry, generating billions of dollars in contracts, free labour and entire prisons run for profit. A country that lectures the world on human rights.
Beyond torture the United States is one of the few countries that still sanctions state murder – executions – and regularly carries them out including on the innocent, on juvenile offenders, on the mentally disabled, on a disproportionately black and Latino and overwhelmingly poor population. How could anyone be surprised that in the midst of a racist colonial war the men and women of the US military were ordered to torture prisoners and some cheerfully obeyed? After all torture, rape, murder – it’s the American way. And while some day, hopefully soon, the US will leave Iraq ending this sad chapter what will it take to put an end to the abomination of the American prison system and the grossly unequal society it claims to protect?