Lessons of Abu Ghraib

The photographs were shocking—but the disturbing reality is that for some people they clearly weren't
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A committee of devils scheming to thwart American intentions in Iraq could have done no worse than turning a group of loutish, leering U.S. soldiers loose with a camera on bound, hooded, naked Iraqi prisoners.

The U.S. intervention in Iraq is troubled, to say the least, and now our own forces have handed our enemies a propaganda coup that trumps their best efforts. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison portray Americans as exactly the sexually obsessed, crude, arrogant, godless occupiers that our enemies say we are. They have even succeeded in uniting those on both sides of the war issue at home. Everyone is outraged and disgraced. The two sides are competing for adjectives to properly express the depths of their revulsion. And rightly so. There is no excuse for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The individual soldiers involved ought to feel ashamed, as should our military and our nation. The photos we have seen so far come in two categories: one suggests a complete lack of order; the other, even more disturbing, a systematic, inappropriate use of coercive interrogation methods. In certain rare cases keeping a prisoner cold, uncomfortable, frightened, and disoriented is morally justified and necessary; but the danger in acknowledging as much has always been that such abusive treatment will become the norm. This is what happened in Israel, where a newly introduced regime of officially sanctioned "aggressive interrogation" quickly deteriorated into a system of routine physical abuse. (The Israeli Supreme Court reissued a ban on all such practices in 1999.) Routine physical abuse appears to have resulted already at Abu Ghraib, where such torments were apparently employed wholesale, and where a climate of dehumanization and sadism took root. The responsibility for that extends way up the chain of command, in ways that will become clear only with time and investigation. There are predictions (including one by Karl Rove, no less) that it will take a generation to repair the damage to America's image in the Middle East.

In the face of this horror even the most measured attempts to add context or perspective seem almost beside the point. Have there been exaggerations? The photos are said to prove that American forces are no better than Saddam Hussein's jailers. Well, no: whatever the Americans did, it is not the equivalent of cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, lopping off limbs, stringing people up with piano wire, and executing people by the tens of thousands. One former Iraqi prisoner was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he would rather have been tortured by Saddam—an opinion that, like a boast of bravery, is easier to hold to when there is no danger of its being put to the test.

And, needless to say, there's plenty of hypocrisy. Maybe it's just me, but did I miss a similar storm of moral outrage from the Arab world over the pious Islamists who got out their video cameras to record the gruesome beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg? Okay, those were renegade co-religionists, and maybe it's not a fair comparison. So let's look at official government policy. Any reader of the yearly reports on torture published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would pay his weight in antique dinars to stay in an American military prison if the alternative was jail anywhere in the Arab world. Hayder Sabbar Abd, one of the men being abused in the Abu Ghraib photos, said he fully expected to be killed. Of course he did. That's what happens to men thrown in jail in his part of the world.

In the end, though, context and perspective cannot mask what is universal about the events at Abu Ghraib. I respect soldiers as much as anyone, but every group of young men (and, apparently, women) contains a few who get a thrill out of kicking somebody when he is helpless and down. Americans are not a superior race, and American soldiers are not morally superior to the soldiers of other nations. The best we can hope is that they are better trained and disciplined, and guided by policy that is morally sound. Sadly, this is not always the case.

The scenes depicted in the photographs are a graphic example of what often takes place in a prison environment where controls and supervision are inadequate. Prison guards have been abusing inmates for as long as there have been prisons. In a now infamous 1971 psychological experiment at Stanford University, in which one randomly selected group of students was permitted to play the role of "guards" over another group of "inmates," abuses began almost immediately, and at one point involved forcing inmates into sexually humiliating role-playing. People don't like to admit it, but the propensity for cruelty is in all of us, and it rises to the surface for many when they are given complete authority over other human beings. Add the unique environment of war, in which culture, religion, race, ethnicity, and ideology often separate guards from prisoners, and abuses are sadly and extremely likely.

The fact that the pictures were taken at all, and the cheerful expressions on the faces of the American bullies, suggest an atmosphere in which these soldiers had no reason to fear being punished for their behavior. It seems doubtful that the photos were meant to be used later to intimidate other prisoners, as has been suggested. If that had been so, the guards would probably have tried to look threatening. These photos have the appearance of grotesque souvenirs. The smiling faces of the tormentors suggest that apart from lacking moral judgment, these soldiers felt licensed to abuse.

Why? By all accounts, military and CIA interrogators at the prison were using coercive tactics—sleep deprivation, deception, fear, or drugs—on large numbers of prisoners, and even recruiting prison guards to assist them. I have written in this magazine about the moral imperative for using these methods on uncooperative individuals withholding critical, life-saving information. No doubt there are some imprisoned in Iraq who fall into that category. But such instances are rare.

The only way to prevent interrogators from feeling licensed to abuse is to make them individually responsible for their actions. If I lean on an insurgent leader who knows where surface-to-air missiles are stockpiled, then I can offer the defense of necessity if charges are brought against me. I might be able to persuade the court or tribunal that my ugly choice was justified. But when a prison, an army, or a government tacitly approves coercive measures as a matter of course, widespread and indefensible human-rights abuses become inevitable. Such approval unleashes the sadists. It leads to severe physical torture (because there can never be a clear line between coercion and torture), to rape, and to murder.

These things may already have happened. The Bush Administration has tried to walk a dangerous line in these matters. The President has spoken out against torture, but his equivocations on the terms of the Geneva Convention suggest that he perceives wiggle room between ideal and practice. There are reports that Administration lawyers quietly drafted a series of secret legal opinions last year that codified the "aggressive" methods of interrogation permitted at U.S. detention facilities—which, if true, effectively authorized in advance the use of coercion.

Perhaps the most disturbing evidence of this mindset was Donald Rumsfeld's long initial silence on the Abu Ghraib photos. His failure to alert the President or congressional leaders before the photos became public—and he knew they were going to become public—leads one to conclude that he didn't think they were a very big deal. If so, this reveals him to be astonishingly tone-deaf, or worse. Maybe he simply wasn't shocked.

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His cover story "The Dark Art of Interrogation" appeared in the October 2003 Atlantic.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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