Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | What have we done? Susan Sontag on the Abu Ghraib images

" 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.""

Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis who resisted their American liberators. And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behavior in open defiance and contempt of international humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies and family. Should we be entirely surprised? Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality. The notion that "apologies" or professions of "disgust" and "abhorrence" by the president and the secretary of defense are a sufficient response to the systematic torture of prisoners revealed at Abu Ghraib is an insult to one's historical and moral sense. The torture of prisoners is not an aberration. It is a direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us ideology of world struggle with which the Bush administration has sought to change, charge radically, the international stance of the United States and to recast many domestic institutions and prerogatives. The Bush administration has committed the country to a pseudo-religious doctrine of war, endless war --- for "the war on terror" is nothing less than that. What has happened in the new, international carceral empire run by the United States military goes beyond even the notorious procedures in France's Devil's Island and Soviet Russia's Gulag system, which in the case of the French penal island had, first, both trials and sentences, and in the case of the Russian prison empire a charge of some kind and a sentence for a specific number of years. Endless war is taken to justify endless incarcerations --- without charges, without the release of prisoners' names or any access to family members and lawyers, without trials, without sentences. Those held in the extra-legal American penal empire are "detainees"; "prisoners," a newly obsolete word, might suggest that they have the rights accorded by international law and the laws of all civilized countries. This "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) --- into which both the justifiable invasion of Afghanistan and the unwinnable folly in Iraq have been folded by Pentagon decree ---inevitably leads to the dehumanizing of anyone declared by the Bush administration to be a possible terrorist: a definition that is not up for debate and is usually made in secret. The charges against most of the people detained in the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan being non-existent --- the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that seventy to ninety percent of those being held seem to have committed no crime other than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in some sweep of "suspects" --- the principal justification for holding them is "interrogation." Interrogation about what? About anything. Whatever the detainee might know. If interrogation is the point of detaining prisoners indefinitely, then physical coercion, humiliation, and torture become inevitable. Remember: we are not talking about that rarest of situations, the "ticking time-bomb" scenario, which is sometimes used as a limiting case that justifies torture of prisoners who have knowledge of an imminent attack. This is general or non-specific information-gathering authorized by American military and civilian administrators to learn more of a shadowy empire of evildoers about which Americans know virtually nothing, in countries about which they are singularly ignorant: in principle, any "information" at all might be useful. An interrogation that produced no information (whatever information might consist of) would count as a failure. All the more justification for preparing prisoners to talk. Softening them up, stressing them out --- these are the usual euphemisms for the bestial practices that have become rampant in American prisons where "suspected terrorists" are being held. Unfortunately, it seems, more than a few got "too stressed out" and died. The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live. Indeed, it seems they were necessary to get America's leaders to acknowledge that they had a problem on their hands."

i have no comment. sontag loves her words, loves her hyperbole, but her point is solid. what have we come to?

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