Closing the black hole of human rights
The official outrage over mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq obfuscates a
shocking truth about our societies: the degree to which atrocity has become
a tool of modern politics.
We cannot ask simply about Abu Ghraib: what kind of soldiers carry
out these abuses, or how does the military system encourage these practices?
It is similarly misguided to look for an ideology behind such atrocities, as
if every act of torture springs from a carbon copy of Nazism and anti-Semitism,
and its perpetrators are crypto-members of the Gestapo. There are too many
uneasy parallels with the way prisoners and people outside the protection of
the law are treated in our homelands.
It is possible that the abusive privates and sergeants of Abu Ghraib Prison
will be demonized by their Washington masters and controllers. But we, the
ordinary public, should expect to find the guilty soldiers just as well-meaning
and humanitarian as our neighbours. Which of course is what they are, provided
your neighbours are prison guards under the orders of military intelligence
and it is government policy to mistreat prisoners whether innocent or guilty.
The military system, whether in Vietnam or Northern Ireland, takes its cues
from society, filtered through the Defense Ministry via the government. It
even engages in a complicity of silence over its practices: ‘don’t ask, don’t
tell’ is standing operating procedure in military-political relationships.
Guantánamo Bay prison and the military’s softening-up practices in Afghanistan
(denounced by Human Rights Watch) are not inventions of the Pentagon but represent
Suspension and a formal reprimand seem the mildest of punishments for the
prison system commander Janis Karpinski, given the extreme dereliction of duty
reported by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, according to the report published
on anti-war.com and msnbc.com (the Pentagon has not released the text).
As Seymour Hersh summarized it in The New Yorker, Lt. General Karpinski
was “rarely seen at the prisons she was supposed to be running,” despite her
claims that she “paid regular visits to the detention facilities.” The report
says the detailed calendar provided by her aide-de-camp “does not support her
contention.” The investigator found that a major contributing factor in the
breakdown of standards was the failure of commanders to appreciate the pressures
on these military traffic cops and reservists who had little experience of
handling difficult prisoners and one year ago thought they were due to go home.
”The quality of life for soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib (BCCF) was extremely
poor”: none of the usual base amenities such as PX or barbershop or similar
facilities. “There were numerous mortar attacks, random rifle and RPG attacks,
and a serious threat to soldiers and detainees in the facility.”
The report says General Taguba “could find no evidence that BG Karpinski
ever directed corrective training for her soldiers or ensured that MP soldiers
throughout Iraq clearly understood the requirements of the Geneva Conventions
relating to the treatment of detainees.” She issued orders for reforms but
did not follow up to check they had been carried out. “What I found particularly
disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand
or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused
or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish
and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers,” the report
concludes. There were repeated escapes, shootings, disturbances among prisoners,
and even Iraqi guards within the top-security site supplying arms to high-value
The prison was overcrowded and understaffed. Karpinski says her superiors
made things worse by blocking the ordinary release of suspects who were no
longer considered a danger to coalition forces. Civilian contractees (interrogators
and translators) walked around freely inside the detention area. Roll-calls
supposed to take place twice a day took place twice a week, and the counts
were regularly inaccurate. Prisoners could come into the system and leave again
without being recorded.
But the Taguba report concludes that “Karpinski and her staff did a poor
job allocating resources[…] Abu Ghraib (BCCF) normally housed between 6000
and 7000 detainees, yet it was operated by only one battalion. In contrast,
the HVD Facility maintains only about 100 detainees, and is also run by an
entire battalion.” Army doctrine suggests a trained brigade can handle 4000
detainees at a time. The 800 th received no specialized training. Worse, “there
is no evidence that the command, although aware of these deficiencies, attempted
to correct them in any systemic manner.”
The rot could be found throughout the US-controlled detention and correction
facilities of Iraq.
According to the anti-war.com version of Taguba’s report: two majors on Karpinski’s
staff were “essentially dysfunctional” but despite numerous complaints, were
not replaced. The battalion commander in charge of the sensitive wing of Abu
Ghraib was “an extremely ineffective commander and leader.” His major effectively
ran day-to-day operation. The lieutenant-colonel was replaced for two weeks
after “a briefing provided [….] to the CJTF-7 Commander” (Lieutenant-General
Ricardo S. Sanchez of the Combined Joint Task Force 7, the senior military
official in Iraq) near the end of October.
It is not indicated what the briefing
said. But there were no papers recording the switch. The Taguba report observes”
“Temporarily removing one commander and replacing him with another serving
Battalion Commander without an order and without notifying superior or subordinate
commands is without precedent in my military career.” The brigade judge advocate,
says the report, “appears to lack initiative and was unwilling to accept responsibility
for any of his actions.” The lieutenant colonel in charge of operations “did
not properly supervise the Brigade staff.”
But this incompetence is along way from Taguba’s conclusion that “numerous
incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on
several detainees. This systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally
perpetrated by several members of the military police guard force.”
Taguba’s report says he suspects that a military intelligence colonel and
lieutenant colonel along with two civilians, a contracted interrogator and
translator, “were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses
at Abu Ghraib.” The report declares: “Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators
and Other US Government Agency’s (OGA) interrogators actively requested that
MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of
witnesses,” despite Ryder’s denials that this took place.
The Taguba report
quotes several soldiers, inside and outside the “hard site” used to keep anti-Coalition
suspects, as being told that military intelligence wanted the guards to ‘loosen
In fact, the leading non-commissioned officers working for the MI
were both prison guards in civilian life, the soldiers reported. At least once,
6-8 ‘high-value’ prisoners were scooted around the prison under MI orders to
keep them from the International Committee of the Red Cross. “This maneuver
was deceptive, contrary to Army Doctrine, and in violation of international
law.” the report points out.
Most disturbing – and confusing for the military police – an order issued
on 19 November made “an MI Officer, rather than an MP Officer, responsible
for the MP units conducting detainee operations” at Abu Ghraib. This lends
credence to Karpinski’s claim she is being made the scapegoat for failures
of command higher up the totem pole.
Despite the pressures, the report singles out two battalions and their lieutenant-colonels
in other prisons who were efficient and disciplined, as well as praising the
165 th MI Battalion and its commander for providing perimeter security and
force protection at Abu Graib. And the abuses were exposed thanks to an MP,
Specialist Joseph Darby, who, Hersh reports, was given a CD containing photos
of the mistreatment. A Navy dog-handler refused to participate “despite significant
pressure from the MI personnel.” A lieutenant stopped an abuse and reported
the incident immediately.
But it seems ironic – and a deliberate slap in the face of Administration
critics – that the new boss of Iraqi prison system is Major General Geoffrey
Miller, former commander at Guantánamo, where the blanket of silence is even
more stifling. The guards don’t even have to abide by the Geneva Conventions,
except as the US interprets them, as Donald Rumsfeld underlined in his testimony
General Miller is probably as responsible as Rumsfeld for the abuses at El
Graib. He headed a task force that went to Iraq on 31 August last year and
declared: "It is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in
setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees." The
Executive Summary of the report stated that “detention operations must act
as an enabler for interrogation.” This is coded language for the abuses that
have caused the scandal: “a euphemism for breaking the will of prisoners,”
in Hersh’s explanation.
Two months later, the army’s chief law-enforcement officer, Provost Marshal
Donald Ryder, who was sent in again after continued reports of abuses. He produced
a report that in contrast to Taguba’s reads like a cover-up. It admits that
Miller used Guantánamo procedures as the baselines for its instructions. This
despite the differences between prisoners held on Cuba and in Abu Ghraib. The
overwhelming proportion of Iraqi prisoners are criminals (and ordinary people
picked up in round-ups as anti-Coalition suspects), as the Taguba report notes.
Ryder told the Army on 5 November there were no military police units purposely
applying inappropriate confinement practices. But the Taguba report states:
“In fact, many of the abuses suffered by detainees occurred during, or near
to, the time of that assessment.”
Taguba, appointed on 24 January, was restricted by the terms of his brief
to investigating abuses after 1 November. What happened beforehand could be
safely hidden by the Ryder report’s anodyne conclusions.
Don’t expect to find a paper trail. Soldiers who refused to join in the abuses
unless they had written orders were not forced to go through with spoken orders.
In one respect the Taguba report reads like a copout. None of the MPs had
proper training in how to be a prison guard. But the general faults Karpinski
for not demanding training. Is Taguba just being a good soldier covering up
for the top brass? Surely it is the responsibility of the Army to give its
forces the right training, equipment and personnel, not just the hard-pressed
officers who are required to cope?
We are left with the puzzle of the photographs. “Trophy” items? “ Holiday”
snaps? Means of further humiliating prisoners? All of these explanations may
be true. But that is not all. The soldier who broke the scandal apparently
did so when he received a CD of the incriminating photos from MPs who treated
him as a buddy. An Argentine navy officer who confessed to involvement in ‘disappearances’
said his colleagues did all they could to associate him with the ‘dirty’war.
I’m reminded of what Fritz Stangl, the Nazi Commandant of Treblinka. told Gitta
Sereny when she asked him why the cruelty to prisoners who were going to be
killed anyway? His explanation was that the cruelty and humiliation were necessary
to make it possible for his staff to carry out the extermination policy.
But none of these observations, or the intense spotlight on Abu Ghraib, should
divert our attention from what I consider the essential point.
The truth is that people in their thousands and millions around the world
are being pushed outside the system of legal and physical protection in democratic
societies –refugees, illegal immigrants, displaced people, effectively rightless
minorities, members of unacknowledged nationalities, stateless populations.
They are sucked off the political radar screen into a black hole of human rights
that cloaks our knowledge of what exactly is happening to them.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that politics today is conducted
through the exercise of ultimate power over others, the state of exception
rather than the rule of law, the camp (hidden from view, whether Auschwitz,
interrogation cells or airport holding areas), and the refugee (of whatever
kind). Citizenship, as the rise of the new Right in Europe has made clear,
has become a device for exclusion rather than inclusion.
This is why charges of anti-Americanism against the US Administration’s war
critics are so disturbing to anyone who supports a self-critical democracy.
In an eerie premonition of the Iraqi pictures that hypnotise us on our television
screens and newspapers, Agamben even describes the unconvicted, innocent or
marginalized in our modern ‘camps’ as living a ‘naked life’. The ‘refugees’
– whether illegal Mexicans fruit-picking in California or would-be asylum seekers
kept in holding areas at airports – depend on the goodwill of their guards
to give them rights. Ignoring these issues, Agamben says, is the reason why
conventional politics has suffered ‘a protracted eclipse’.
Is there no answer to the torrent of atrocity? Have we been plunged into
the Desert of the Real? – to quote Slovene cultural theorist Slavoj Ž i ž ek
and The Matrix. Agamben says that only if we put respect for individual
rights again at the forefront of political concern can we revitalize public
life. It also means taking steps against cruelty and abuse on every front,
in domestic life and social relations as well as in the military. When, for
example, are US authorities going to take real steps against rape and brutality
in Homeland prisons?
The alternative comes down to a dialogue of brutality: our terrorism against
their terrorism. Which is very much the situation that some people want. “Terror
against terror – there is no longer any ideology behind that,” points out Jean
He is right. Even before the latest revelations, the working artists and
academics from the US who attend the experimental European Graduate School
in Saas-Fee Switzerland (MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellows in waiting according to
one of their professors) voiced their concern at restrictions imposed on civil
rights in the wake of 9/11. In discussions with Claude Lanzmann, the maker
of the epic memorial of Holocaust experience Shoah, they said they
felt the Administration has become proto-Fascist in its threats to rights.
Tracy Ann Essoglou, a Florida-based artist who was one of the School’s first
Ph. Ds, has created a multi-media installation called Sins of the New Millennium,
an attempt to update the Seven Deadly Sins in a secular world. “We cannot expect
to resolve interpersonal, intracultural and interplanetary differences through
ever-increasingly complex and contorted judicial systems,” she says. “And we
cannot regulate human behaviour by creating more and more laws.”
Her Sins piece lists its secular seven as: aggression, neglect, ‘territorialization’,
impunity, complacency, wastefulness, and wilful ignorance. Essoglou’s installation
invites visitors to draw up their own list. But this seems a pretty good place
to start. Those who want to can judge for themselves how far the Bush Administration
is guilty of these sins, and how much is endemic in the system of government
they have promoted.
Peter Hulm, co-owner of Crosslines Global Report is completing a Ph. D. dissertation at the
European Graduate School on atrocity and celebrity. Agamben, Baudrillard and
Ž i ž ek are on the faculty of EGS. Essoglou’s work was shown at World Bank
headquarters in 1995-6.