Monday, May 24, 2004

A powerful New York Times Magazine piece by Susan Sontag, who demonstrates here once again that she's still one of America's sharpest, most incisive cultural critics. Contra G. W. Bush, she argues that the photos of American atrocities at Abu Ghraib are in fact representative of the "true nature" of America, or at least of the "true nature" of the American occupation of Iraq. I couldn't agree more. The history of imperialism-- from ancient Athens and Rome to 20th Century British and French colonialism-- shows that occupations lead inevitably to the sort of brutality on display in the Abu Ghraib pictures.

Regarding the Torture of Others

May 23, 2004
By SUSAN SONTAG

I.

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

The Bush administration and its defenders have chiefly
sought to limit a public-relations disaster -- the
dissemination of the photographs -- rather than deal with
the complex crimes of leadership and of policy revealed by
the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of
the reality onto 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 Defense 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 some
800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few
weeks' time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that
indicated the American government had no intention of doing
anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib
-- and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in
Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay -- by its true name,
torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the
Rwandan genocide a genocide. Here is one of the definitions
of torture contained in a convention to which the United
States is a signatory: ''any act by which severe pain or
suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally
inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from
him or a third person information or a confession.'' (The
definition comes from the 1984 Convention Against Torture
and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
Punishment. Similar definitions have existed for some time
in customary law and in treaties, starting with Article 3
-- common to the four Geneva conventions of 1949 -- and
many recent human rights conventions.) The 1984 convention
declares, ''No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal
political instability or any other public emergency, may be
invoked as a justification of torture.'' And all covenants
on torture specify that it includes treatment intended to
humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells
and corridors.

Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit
the damage of the widening revelations of the torture of
prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere -- trials,
courts-martial, dishonorable discharges, resignation of
senior military figures and responsible administration
officials and substantial compensation to the victims -- it
is probable that the ''torture'' word will continue to be
banned. To acknowledge that Americans torture their
prisoners would contradict everything this administration
has invited the public to believe about the virtue of
American intentions and America's right, flowing from that
virtue, to undertake unilateral action on the world stage.

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. Yes, President 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 ''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 the
torture was done by individuals (i.e., ''not by
everybody'') -- but whether it was systematic. Authorized.
Condoned. All acts are done by individuals. 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.

II.

Considered in this light, the photographs are us. That is,
they are representative of the fundamental corruptions of
any foreign occupation together with the Bush
adminstration's distinctive policies. The Belgians in the
Congo, the French in Algeria, practiced torture and sexual
humiliation on despised recalcitrant natives. Add to this
generic corruption the mystifying, near-total
unpreparedness of the American rulers of Iraq to deal with
the complex realities of the country after its
''liberation.'' And add to that the overarching,
distinctive doctrines of the Bush administration, namely
that the United States has embarked on an endless war and
that those detained in this war are, if the president so
decides, ''unlawful combatants'' -- a policy enunciated by
Donald Rumsfeld for Taliban and Qaeda prisoners as early as
January 2002 -- and thus, as Rumsfeld said, ''technically''
they ''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 or access to lawyers in
American-run prisons that have been set up since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves
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,
as may be seen in 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 of black victims of lynching taken between
the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans 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.

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, however, reflect a
shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be
saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A
digital camera is a common possession among 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
e-mailing them around the globe.

There is more and more recording of what people do, by
themselves. At least or especially in America, 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 countless 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 ''Capturing the
Friedmans,'' the recent documentary by Andrew Jarecki about
a Long Island family embroiled in pedophilia charges.

An erotic life is, for more and more people, that whither
can be captured in digital photographs and on video. And
perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to
record, when it has a sexual component. It is surely
revealing, as more Abu Ghraib photographs enter public
view, that torture photographs are interleaved with
pornographic images of American soldiers having sex with
one another. In fact, most of the torture photographs have
a sexual theme, as in those showing the coercing of
prisoners to perform, or simulate, sexual acts among
themselves. One exception, already canonical, is the
photograph of the man made to stand on a box, hooded and
sprouting wires, reportedly told he would be electrocuted
if he fell off. Yet pictures of prisoners bound in painful
positions, or made to stand with outstretched arms, are
infrequent. That they count as torture cannot be doubted.
You have only to look at the terror on the victim's face,
although such ''stress'' fell within the Pentagon's limits
of the acceptable. But most of the pictures seem part of a
larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman
leading a naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix
imagery. And you wonder how much of the sexual tortures
inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was inspired by the
vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the
Internet -- and which ordinary people, by sending out
Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate.

III.

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 nonstop
attentions. But to live 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 being
inflicted on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part
of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of being
photographed, to which one is now 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.

Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can
someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another
human being? Set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of
cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded prisoners
to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And
you feel naive for asking, since the answer is,
self-evidently, People do these things to other people.
Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most
common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration
camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein.
Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told,
or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute
power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do them
when they are led to believe that the people they are
torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the
meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were
performed, but that their perpetrators apparently 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 President 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 video
games of killing that are a principal entertainment of boys
-- can the video game ''Interrogating the Terrorists''
really be far behind? -- and on to the violence that has
become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant
kick. Violent crime is down, yet the easy delight taken in
violence seems to have grown. From the harsh torments
inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban
high schools -- depicted in Richard Linklater's 1993 film,
''Dazed and Confused'' -- to the hazing rituals of physical
brutality and sexual humiliation in college fraternities
and on sports teams, America has become a country in which
the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good
entertainment, fun.

What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the
exercise of extreme sadomasochistic longings -- as in Pier
Paolo Pasolini's last, near-unwatchable film, ''Salo''
(1975), depicting orgies of torture in the Fascist redoubt
in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era -- is now
being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or
venting. To ''stack naked men'' is like a college
fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the
many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show.
Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No
matter. The observation -- or is it the fantasy? -- was on
the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some
Americans was Limbaugh's response: ''Exactly!'' he
exclaimed. ''Exactly my point. This is no different than
what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're
going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to
hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really
hammer them because they had a good time.'' ''They'' are
the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on:
''You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm
talking about people having a good time, these people. You
ever heard of emotional release?''

Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis.
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 contempt of international
humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up,
before the atrocities they commit, and send off the
pictures to their buddies. 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.

IV.

The notion that apologies or professions of ''disgust'' by
the president and the secretary of defense are a sufficient
response 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 doctrines
of world struggle with which the Bush administration has
sought to change, change 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. Endless war is taken to justify endless
incarcerations. Those held in the extralegal 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 endless ''global war on terrorism'' -- into which both
the quite justified invasion of Afghanistan and the
unwinnable folly in Iraq have been folded by Pentagon
decree -- inevitably leads to the demonizing and
dehumanizing of anyone declared by the Bush administration
to be a possible terrorist: a definition that is not up for
debate and is, in fact, usually made in secret.

The charges against most of the people detained in the
prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan being nonexistent -- the
Red Cross reports that 70 to 90 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 cases,
the ''ticking time bomb'' situation, which is sometimes
used as a limiting case that justifies torture of prisoners
who have knowledge of an imminent attack. This is general
or nonspecific information-gathering, authorized by
American military and civilian administrators to learn more
of a shadowy empire of evildoers about whom 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 euphemisms for the bestial
practices in American prisons where suspected terrorists
are being held. Unfortunately, as Staff Sgt. Ivan (Chip)
Frederick noted in his diary, a prisoner can get too
stressed out and die. The picture of a man in a body bag
with ice on his chest may well be of the man Frederick was
describing.

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 our leaders to acknowledge that they had a
problem on their hands. After all, the conclusions of
reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red
Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by
humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments
inflicted on ''detainees'' and ''suspected terrorists'' in
prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan
and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a
year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by
President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza
Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get
their attention, when it became clear they could not be
suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this
''real'' to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had
been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of
infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination,
and so much easier to forget.

So now the pictures will continue to ''assault'' us -- as
many Americans are bound to feel. Will people get used to
them? Some Americans are already saying they have seen
enough. Not, however, the rest of the world. Endless war:
endless stream of photographs. Will editors now debate
whether showing more of them, or showing them uncropped
(which, with some of the best-known images, like that of a
hooded man on a box, gives a different and in some
instances more appalling view), would be in ''bad taste''
or too implicitly political? By ''political,'' read:
critical of the Bush administration's imperial project. For
there can be no doubt that the photographs damage, as
Rumsfeld testified, ''the reputation of the honorable men
and women of the armed forces who are courageously and
responsibly and professionally defending our freedom across
the globe.'' This damage -- to our reputation, our image,
our success as the lone superpower -- is what the Bush
administration principally deplores. How the protection of
''our freedom'' -- the freedom of 5 percent of humanity --
came to require having American soldiers ''across the
globe'' is hardly debated by our elected officials.

Already the backlash has begun. Americans are being warned
against indulging in an orgy of self-condemnation. The
continuing publication of the pictures is being taken by
many Americans as suggesting that we do not have the right
to defend ourselves: after all, they (the terrorists)
started it. They -- Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein? what's
the difference? -- attacked us first. Senator James Inhofe
of Oklahoma, a Republican member of the Senate Armed
Services Committee, before which Secretary Rumsfeld
testified, avowed that he was sure he was not the only
member of the committee ''more outraged by the outrage''
over the photographs than by what the photographs show.
''These prisoners,'' Senator Inhofe explained, ''you know
they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in
Cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers,
they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them
probably have American blood on their hands, and here we're
so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.''
It's the fault of ''the media'' which are provoking, and
will continue to provoke, further violence against
Americans around the world. More Americans will die.
Because of these photos.

There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are
dying not because of the photographs but because of what
the photographs reveal to be happening, happening with the
complicity of a chain of command -- so Maj. Gen. Antonio
Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and (among
others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a
Republican, suggested, after he saw the Pentagon's full
range of images on May 12. ''Some of it has an elaborate
nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or
not others were directing or encouraging,'' Senator Graham
said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that
viewing an uncropped version of one photo showing a stack
of naked men in a hallway -- a version that revealed how
many other soldiers were at the scene, some not even paying
attention -- contradicted the Pentagon's assertion that
only rogue soldiers were involved. ''Somewhere along the
line,'' Senator Nelson said of the torturers, ''they were
either told or winked at.'' An attorney for Specialist
Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had his
client identify the men in the uncropped version; according
to The Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the
men were military intelligence and one a civilian
contractor working with military intelligence.

V.

But the distinction between photograph and reality -- as
between spin and policy -- can easily evaporate. And that
is what the administration wishes to happen. ''There are a
lot more photographs and videos that exist,'' Rumsfeld
acknowledged in his testimony. ''If these are released to
the public, obviously, it's going to make matters worse.''
Worse for the administration and its programs, presumably,
not for those who are the actual -- and potential? --
victims of torture.

The media may self-censor but, as Rumsfeld acknowledged,
it's hard to censor soldiers overseas, who don't write
letters home, as in the old days, that can be opened by
military censors who ink out unacceptable lines. Today's
soldiers instead function like tourists, as Rumsfeld put
it, ''running around with digital cameras and taking these
unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against
the law, to the media, to our surprise.'' The
administration's effort to withhold pictures is proceeding
along several fronts. Currently, the argument is taking a
legalistic turn: now the photographs are classified as
evidence in future criminal cases, whose outcome may be
prejudiced if they are made public. The Republican chairman
of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of
Virginia, after the May 12 slide show of image after image
of sexual humiliation and violence against Iraqi prisoners,
said he felt ''very strongly'' that the newer photos
''should not be made public. I feel that it could possibly
endanger the men and women of the armed forces as they are
serving and at great risk.''

But the real push to limit the accessibility of the
photographs will come from the continuing effort to protect
the administration and cover up our misrule in Iraq -- to
identify ''outrage'' over the photographs with a campaign
to undermine American military might and the purposes it
currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an
implicit criticism of the war to show on television
photographs of American soldiers who have been killed in
the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will
increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the new
photographs and further tarnish the image of America.

After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell, more
so than any of the people who got us into this rotten war
seem to have expected. In our digital hall of mirrors, the
pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one
picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders
choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more
snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.

Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of ''Regarding
the Pain of Others.''

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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