Thursday, May 12, 2005

Abu Ghraib and Double Standards

Ian McEwan observed recently that there were, in effect, two kinds of people: those who could have used or recognized the words "Abu Ghraib" a few years ago, and those to whom it became a new term only last year. And what a resonant name it has indeed become. Now the Colombian painter Fernando Botero has produced a sequence of lurid and haunting pictures, based on the photographs taken by American war criminals, with which he hopes to draw attention to the horrors inflicted there. But his true ambition, he says, is to do for Abu Ghraib what Picasso did for Guernica.

The first of these ambitions is probably otiose: Where in the world are the images of Abu Ghraib not already notorious? (One of the cleansers of Darfur, only recently, employed them as a tu quoque to pre-empt any American condemnation of his activities.)

So Christopher Hitchens begins his May 9th column for Slate. In his own inimitable style, Hitchens asks why the acts of some out-of-control American MPs have become such an international cause celebre. Why do so many people around the world believe that Abu Ghraib prison suddenly came into existence in May 2003?

Make no mistake; the abuses at Abu Ghraib were wrong, the perpetrators should be punished, and steps taken to ensure that such actions can never recur in a US military detention facility. At the same time, the events at Abu Ghraib have been exaggerated to almost mythic proportions. An article from the May 10th New York Times notes that the MPs involved in the abuse didn't need influence from above to engage in bad behavior:

To some, the grave misdeeds at Abu Ghraib, where the three soldiers worked for six months in 2003, have become a twisted symbol of the American military occupation of Iraq. But the scandal is also one rooted in the behavior of military reservists working at the prison, an environment that testimony has portrayed as more frat house than military prison, a place where inmates were routinely left naked and soldiers took pictures of one another simulating sex with fruit.

I, for one, eagerly await the extensive media investigation of the trail of secret White House memos that inspired the MPs at Abu Ghraib to perform simulated sex on fruit.

What happened at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was reprehensible. Lebanon's Daily Star, however, published an interview on May 24th, 2004 with one Iraqi who was able to put the scandal into perspective:

Ibrahim Idrissi has mixed feelings about the recent uproar caused by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation. "As a humanitarian organization, we oppose this," he says. "But these are soldiers who have come to Iraq to fight, not to be prison guards. It was to be expected. Of course, if there are innocent people in there ... it is possible, I guess, that some of them are innocent."

If Idrissi seems a bit callous about the fate of the Iraqis in US-run jails, he has probably earned the right to differ. He recalls a day in 1982, at the General Security prison in Baghdad:

"They called all the prisoners out to the courtyard for what they called a 'celebration.' We all knew what they meant by 'celebration.' All the prisoners were chained to a pipe that ran the length of the courtyard wall. One prisoner, Amer al-Tikriti, was called out. They said if he didn't tell them everything they wanted to know, they would show him torture like he had never seen. He merely told them he would show them patience like they had never seen."

"This is when they brought out his wife, who was five months pregnant. One of the guards said that if he refused to talk he would get 12 guards to rape his wife until she lost the baby. Amer said nothing. So they did. We were forced to watch. Whenever one of us cast down his eyes, they would beat us."

"Amer's wife didn't lose the baby. So the guard took a knife, cut her belly open and took the baby out with his hands. The woman and child died minutes later. Then the guard used the same knife to cut Amer's throat." There is a moment of silence. Then Idrissi says: "What we have seen about the recent abuse at Abu Ghraib is a joke to us."

(emphasis added-DD)

Why has Senor Botero not been inspired to paint a "sequence of lurid and haunting pictures" showing the horrific fate of Amer and his family? Or depicting some of the estimated 2,000 executions per year that occurred at Abu Ghraib under Saddam's rule? Or the Iraqis who had their hands amputated by Saddam's thugs? Or any of the other numerous acts of almost medieval barbarism that took place at Abu Ghraib prior to the fall of the Baathist regime?

No, Senor Botero couldn't give a damn about any of those atrocities, or their victims. It is only the actions of Charles Graner and Lynndie England that concern him, because only they satisfy his need to blame America for all that is wrong with the world. Sadly, Botero is just one example of many in this regard.


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