Torture at Abu Ghraib

Our in-class discussion on Wednesday brought up a lot of points about what torture is, if and when it can be justified, and how we can change the way people think about and understand it.  In this blog, I want to talk about how and why I am so strongly against torture, in all forms.  In Monstering, a book by Tara McKelvey on Abu Ghraib, we learn about what happened at an American prison in Iraq.  Prisoners “fell into three loosely defined categories: common criminals; security detainees suspected of “crimes against the coalition”; and a small number of suspected “high-value” leaders of the insurgency against the coalition forces”; many innocent civilians were arrested. Prisoners were raped, tortured, abused, and some were even murdered.  Some abuses went unrecognized or unreported, but when photos of prisoner abuse surfaced, it was impossible to deny what was happening.  American soldiers and officials used physical, sexual, and psychological violence to establish a power relationship between them and the prisoners.  Often times, they abused prisoners without a valid reason.  As we discussed in class, there is no need to pile up naked prisoners or make a prisoner kneel while being dragged on a leash; this type of “punishment” does not serve the purpose of getting information.  I feel that this was just another way for the United States to marginalize Iraqi people.  Yet again, they were putting forth the idea that Americans were superior and Iraqis needed to rise to the level of Americans.  This torture and dehumanization was a tactic of war in that it furthered the American political agenda while masking as something that would benefit the Iraqi people (kind of like the war in general).

First, I want to look a bit at the definition of torture that John Yoo provided: “interrogators could do what they wanted as long as the intensity of pain inflicted on suspects was less than ‘that which accompany serious physical injury such as death or organ failure'” (McKelvey 31).  As McKelvey points out, “The memo created conditions under which almost any type of physical duress could be inflicted on detainees during interrogation” (McKelvey 31).  There are many problems with this definition and the logic supporting it.  First of all, I find it interesting that the examples they provide of serious injury are death and organ failure, when both of them are not in fact injuries; rather, they are serious medical conditions and/or the loss of one’s life.  When discussing the limits of mental pain that may be inflicted upon prisoners, the definition says that the duration of such pain must last for months or years to be considered torture.  There is no specific mention of sexual violence, but this definition would make it justifiable unless the person develops a mental disorder as a result.  To read the full text of this document, click here.

In class on Wednesday, we spent a lot of time talking about the circumstances under which torture can be justified.  Some students argued that if interrogators were one-hundred percent sure that the prisoner had valuable information, torture would be acceptable.  However, there are two major problems with this theory.  First, it has been proven that when someone is tortured, they are likely to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear in order to avoid more abuse.  Second, how can one possibly be one-hundred percent sure?  This would require some sort of evidence, which would mean that there would be no need to torture.  We also spent time arguing about how the role of reasonable doubt plays into this.  If you cannot convict someone of a crime because of reasonable doubt, you should not be able to torture them.

After hearing all of these opposing viewpoints, my beliefs about torture and prisoners rights’ were still the same.  Prisoners, whether or not they have been convicted of crime, deserve to be treated as all other people.  I feel that there is no reason to ever torture another human being.  Those that torture often make themselves out to be superior to the prisoners, but they are no better than any criminal.  I am strongly against violence (with the exception of self-defense) and feel that there are many other ways to go about getting information.  Also, we should not be able to pick and choose when someone is entitled to their human rights.  Regardless of whether or not someone has committed a crime, they are still a human being and deserve to be treated fairly.  We have the right to be innocent until proven guilt, the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney (even if the accused cannot afford one), and the right to a fair trial.  (To read more about the criminal procedures in Iraq, click here).  All of these are granted in both the United States and Iraq, but these rights were stripped away from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Even if someone is able to personally justify torture, there are many examples of abuse coming from Abu Ghraib that were committed without a particular purpose.  In February of 2004, Major General Antonio M. Taguba completed a report on abuse at Abu Ghraib.  In this document, he cited many instances of abuse and human rights violations.  Some of these include: “Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees… beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick,… and in one instance actually biting a detainee.”   These examples show that the American soldier wanted to dominate the prisoners and establish control over them.

In an article in The New Yorker by Seymour M. Hersh, Hersh explains how these methods of torture were selected and why they are so significant.  For example, prisoners were forced to be naked in front of others, masturbate in public, and raped by soldiers of the same sex.  Hersh says this is particularly dehumanizing because of the relationship between such acts and religion.  Because “homosexual acts are against Islamic law,” these methods of torture force prisoners to choose between their religious values and their life.  Although I strongly disagree with the idea that homosexuality should be punished in any way, it is wrong to force people to do anything that goes against their personal beliefs.

It is disgusting that American soldiers would commit such acts, but in all honesty, it is not surprising.  First, American culture glamorizes violence to the point that consumers of media often become desensitized.  You can see this in video games, television, music videos, etc.  Second, masculinity is associated with dominance and power.  One way to maintain an image of masculinity is by exerting power and dominance in a hypermasculine manner, i.e. violence.  Lastly, military training strategically desensitizes soldiers to putting others in pain (To read more about these issues, read my blog on child soldiers and military culture.)

Although I believe that being a prison guard in such a morbid environment did intensify the violence, I feel that the situation would have been much different if violence was not so tolerated by society in everyday life.  As we have seen before with the Milgram studies, people are likely to commit certain actions if they are told to do so by their superiors.  Some American soldiers that were being prosecuted for the rimes they committed against prisoners in Abu Ghraib claim that they were acting according to military orders.  Hersh says, “Myers, who was one of the military defense attorneys in the My Lai prosecutions of the nineteen-seventies, told me that his client’s defense will be that he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and, in particular, the directions of military intelligence. He said, ‘Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?’”  Looking at reports about prison systems during war from the past indicate that military abuse is common in these settings.  This system obviously needed to be reformed, but that has not happened yet.  Even if the arguments by these soldiers are true, it assumes that soldiers have no control over themselves and their actions.  These perpetrators need to take accountability for their actions instead of passing the blame onto their commanders.  Both parties played a role in these human rights violations, whether directly or indirectly, and they should all be held equally accountable; being a bystander is just as serious an offense as committing the crime.

Had photos from inside the prison not been leaked to the public, we may have never heard about the abuses that were being committed.  Although the entire situation was absolutely horrible, I think it was crucial that photos were leaked to the public.  These images made it impossible for the United States to deny committing such abuses and exposed people to reality.  It infuriates me that the U.S. portrays itself as a model for others when it does not even meet the standards it sets up for others.  The United States preaches about democracy and basic freedoms, but does not enforce these ideals within the country’s own borders.  Abu Ghraib is just one example of how the United States violates human rights and tries to cover it up.  Also, I feel that these photos raised a lot of doubt in the minds of people who initially supported the war.  These photos turned the American public into bystanders because we were no longer oblivious to the atrocities that were happening in Iraq.

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