Men with anguished faces, stripped naked, quivering before snarling dogs. Women disrobed and dishonoured before the camera. Brutal beatings, drowning and more, all captured on film for a tormentor’s enjoyment later on, while at home with family and friends. I am referring not to the American penchant for cruelty, but to Saddam Hussain’s. The press had earlier published the lurid details, revealed by one of his former mistresses, of a dictator sipping gin at home on his sofa while in catharsis watching the videos of his screaming torture victims. Those videos were never found; they vanished, as did the much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction. No one doubts that the torture stories were true—that is what Arab dictators do, but what shocked the west was the litany of pictures and video footage of Americans torturing and raping their own prisoners in Saddam’s old dungeons.
These pictures have hurt the west, which has difficulty defining itself without first presenting a picture of what the west is not: an alien, uncivilised world where torture and abuse are commonplace. What the pictures from Abu Ghraib have done is to dent the purity of that reassuringly simple perception. What has heightened the discomfort is the irony that the torture in Abu Ghraib occurred as part of the War on Terror—a war between good and evil, which can never end, because it can never decisively be won or lost. The danger of fighting such a war against an abstract noun, rather than a tangible noun such as the former Soviet Union, is that one may end up fighting against oneself. President Bush managed to combine the irony and tragedy of this, just days before the scandal became public, with his remarks on the USA Patriot Act in Pennsylvania on the 19th of April 2004. Referring to ‘supporters of the outlaw cleric’ he said that they are ‘still bitter that they don’t have the position to run the torture chambers and rape rooms… They will fail because they do not speak for the vast majority of Iraqis who do not want to replace one tyrant with another.’
The final sentence of George Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind – a tale of revolutionary animals who took over the farm and whose new leaders, the pigs, assumed the character of their former masters: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
The War on Terror is also reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, in which the hero overcomes torture only to succumb, finally, to the mind-altering propaganda of a totalitarian state. Central to the state’s ability to exert control over Winston’s mind was its success in projecting the spectre of larger than life incarnations of evil, whose terrible crimes could be used at any time to generate hysteria; evil itself thereby had a face by which to be known, yet was disembodied enough to slip in and out of reality with staged precision. The western world, now relieved from the uncomfortable self-reflection that followed the implosion of the former Soviet Union has been allured by a similar psychosis, which took hold when the mad phrase ‘war on terror’ was dreamed up by the neo conservatives in the US administration. Ron Reagan, son of the late former president Reagan, complained in an interview with David Talbot for Salon magazine in April 2003, that the neo conservatives have used this war on terror as a false pretext to attack Iraq and: ‘to justify everything from tax cuts to Alaska oil drilling.’ In the war against an amorphous foe, anyone who opposes the US risks being cast as a crazed terrorist, Saddam loyalist, or foreign fighter-as if by some incredible oversight we are to consider coalition forces in Iraq as something other than ‘foreign fighters’. Relentless propaganda has characterised those who resist the US led occupation of Iraq as nihilistic incarnations of terror, motivated by an inexplicable intellection, and this has led America and her ally down the slippery slope to the torture chambers and rape rooms of Abu Ghraib.
The killing of civilians in Iraq is, apparently, of so little consequence to the US occupation army that it does not even bother to keep records. Such is the measure of respect for human life and dignity. As for the pictures: those evil pictures, which open windows into the hearts of men and women—what do they reveal? When American and British soldiers commit barbarous acts upon helpless prisoners what does it say? Is their barbarity not a reflection of the nation in whose name they serve?
Western leaders have protested vociferously that the abuses in Abu Ghraib do not represent the true nature and values of the west. The abuses were simply ‘un-American’ according to President Bush. Citizens of a nation with high ideals may, it is true, sometimes fall short of those ideals, but many are now wondering, just how far short could so many people fall before fundamental questions about the western way of life should be asked? Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books, speaks about: ‘disavowed beliefs, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about,’ which he calls the ‘flipside of public morality.’ He concludes that, ‘in the photographs of humiliated Iraqi prisoners, what we get is, precisely, an insight into American values.’
Slavoj Zizek’s perception is shared by an influential American writer who spoke poignantly during a typical July 4th Independence Day celebration in New York:
‘Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future…There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour… for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.’
These words were uttered back in 1852 by Frederick Douglass, a black man, who was describing the treatment of black slaves at the hands of their freedom loving white masters. During his speech he marvelled at the contradiction and hypocrisy of being invited to celebrate the words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’, while his own people were still suffering slavery.
Two centuries later, the same disparity between America’s vaunted ideals and her actions is evident, and this is the real story of Abu Ghraib that lies buried beneath the lurid details of photographs, courts-martial and resignations. It might be a shock for those in the west to learn that the Muslim world, though deeply angered, is not at all surprised by the humiliating pictures from Abu Ghraib. It is not that Muslims view the people of the west as being, due to their culture, inherently torturers and rapists. The outrage of the majority of British and American people would disprove that temptingly convenient notion. Nevertheless, the Muslims, looking from the outside in, have a perception of the west very different from that of those who are within the western cultural fold. The reasons are many, but they centre on bad experiences of colonialism and cultural imperialism.
Rather than dwell, however, upon the Muslim experience of colonialism, it is fair to seek, as Slavoj Zizek has done, insights into western values by looking at western values at home. Perhaps one example will suffice—America’s prison system within her own borders. More than 2.1 million Americans are currently locked up in US prisons, which is itself a worrying statistic because it actually represents 2.1 million examples of ‘un-American’ behaviour. Any society does, of course, have its deviants, but what is noteworthy is that America has the highest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total population. The conditions in these prisons would give an indication of the conditions that Iraqis could expect when they are subject to the same ethos. Human rights organisations regularly condemn the overcrowding, brutality and sexual abuse that are rampant in US prisons. David Matlin, novelist, poet and essayist who teaches literature and creative writing at San Diego State University, wrote about the widespread abuses within prisons inside the US on Newsday.com on 9th May:
‘I find myself in near despair writing this article because these images are the images of ourselves that we have, at now unimaginable costs, either ignored or tragically embraced inside our own society for decades.
The pictures of our young men and women “loosening up” prisoners are part of the secret ransoms of our daily lives we have chosen to place at the most conveniently distant moral boundaries.’
Without wishing to tarnish all the people of the west there is, it seems, a darker side to western society than the high sounding abstract ideals that have been shamed by the goings on in Abu Ghraib.
The evident hypocrisy of the west, in initiating a war based upon the lie of non-existent weapons of mass destruction is multiplied by the slogans of equality and freedom that Britain and America claim to be building in a new Iraq. These ideals that Americans especially hold so dearly, and sing so warmly, were written by Thomas Jefferson in the declaration of independence, and yet he, like the west today, was unable to reconcile these ideals with a deeper secular philosophy about life. Consider his attitude toward slavery, which he believed to be wrong while keeping slaves himself. The contradiction is obvious, but the 3rd President of the United States and chief drafter of the Declaration of Independence lacked the moral rigidity needed to face the issue effectually—a weakness bequeathed to the nation he helped to found. It troubled him greatly, and the torment of his mind is evident in a letter he wrote about the emancipation of black slaves to Representative John Holmes of Massachusetts in 1820:
‘I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation is on the other.’
It is the same morally intolerable balance, between justice and self-preservation, which sullies those who attempt to justify support for tyrannical regimes that are allies of the war on terror, even though they engage in torture. The most egregious example is the Uzbek regime, whose president, Islam Karimov, once famously boasted about his methods for stemming insurrection: ‘I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic…If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.’ This is a man who boils his political opponents alive, and yet still enjoys substantial western support—in spite of calls for the US to cut funding from human rights groups. Now that the west has been lowered in the eyes of a critical world, what moral authority does the west now have to act against tyrants and torturers?
The deep-rooted problem that the Muslim world today perceives with the west, is that it lacks a clear moral philosophy to underpin its stated ideals. Expediency, while effective in getting quick results, is a sorry basis for a US political order with visions of world leadership. The result of this hubris is a deep-rooted perception amongst Muslims that the west is hypocritical in applying its ideals harshly on Muslims while acting contrary to those ideals itself. The problem with intangible values and ideals being ‘self-evident’ is that they are all too easily left behind whenever they run counter to the very powerful arguments levelled by those with all too tangible interests. When New Labour first took office in Britain a ‘moral foreign policy’ was promised, but it took only a matter of weeks for the very immoral Machiavellian nature of British foreign policy to rear its head in Sierra Leone. This expediency is far from being a universal measure. Muslims throughout the Middle East, oppressed by sycophantic dictators who care more for western interests than those of their own populations, are reaching back to the roots of their own political philosophy founded upon Islam’s fixed moral underpinning, and they are outraged when western nations wage war upon them in the name of ideals that only seem to work against them. Michael Howard aptly remarked during ‘Breakfast with Frost’ on 23rd May that when we try to advocate ‘western values’ from now on it would, ‘provoke hollow laughter in the Arab world.’ What is not appreciated enough in the west is that these pictures, far from being the smoking gun in Muslim eyes, are potent icons encapsulating already deeply held grievances against the west.
To make matters worse, what has happened in Abu Ghraib is part of what increasingly seems to have been a clear policy of abuse for the sake of expediency. On CNN’s ‘Late Edition’ with Wolf Blitzer, Senator Joseph Lieberman, a member of the Armed Services Committee said, in relation to the interrogation of suspected terrorists for information that might save lives: ‘I don’t think there are many Americans who would say we shouldn’t use whatever means are necessary to extract that information.’ In addition, Newsweek magazine reported that in 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a memo saying he believed the war on terror: ‘renders obsolete Geneva’s [the Geneva Conventions’] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.’ The New Yorker article, by Seymour Hersh, claimed that in the war against terrorism, Rumsfeld set up a highly secret program to gather information from ‘high-value’ targets about al-Qaida through interrogations, capture and killings. The tactics of so-called ‘torture lite’ and sexual intimidation were introduced for their effectiveness after lessons learned from Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram detention facility. The ICRC and Human Rights Watch to name just two organisations had been complaining for at least a year before the torture scandal became public and yet nothing was done about it. The fact that the US guards at Abu Ghraib seemed to be enjoying their work too much should take nothing away from the fact that they claim that they were acting under orders, and believed that softening up the prisoners was actually serving their country well by helping to provide vital intelligence in the war against terror. By selling their own humanity in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere they made a truly Faustian pact.
Many blame the US neo conservatives for threatening to embroil the west in a never-ending conflict with the Muslim world, but I believe that we are also witnessing another conflict, not between the west and Islam, but between western values and western philosophy. If only half as much attention were focused upon that front the world might gain something from the shame and scandal of Abu Ghraib. Western philosophy is of course varied, but secularism lies at its core. After releasing their societies from control by divine moral codes defining right and wrong, western societies have had to improvise. Many of the high sounding values of the west are based upon unprovable assumptions about the rights of man derived from consideration of man’s nature. The more pervasive utilitarian trend does not start from assumptions about nature or divine rights but upon the utility of increasing pleasure and removing pain. Of course one mans pleasure may cause another mans pain, so nineteenth century utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill devised methods, based on the idea of mathematical calculus, to balance pain and pleasure quantitatively for the maximum number of people. Mill went on to introduce a qualitative aspect to the subject that would give the state a degree of paternalism and reduce the chance of persecuting the minority for the sake of the greater good of the majority. An example of the application of this idea can be found under the heading, ‘the ethics of emergencies’ in ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ by Ayn Rand: ‘If the [drowning] person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only when the danger to one’s own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it… Conversely, if one is drowning, one cannot expect a stranger to risk his life for one’s sake.’
While Bentham’s ‘felicific calculus’ and the arguments over the consistency by which utilitarian considerations can be applied on various problems are familiar by name to few outside of philosophy lectures in university, the impact of this philosophy in the west is nevertheless inestimable. Leaving aside the justifications for torture within the US administration and its military, utilitarian criteria for defining right and wrong have become part of everyday vocabulary: the so-called ‘grey area’ where right and wrong are thought difficult to define, because the consequences of actions in terms of pleasure and pain to the maximum number of people are either difficult to calculate, or it is feared that the normally moral value could lead to harm. Tom Hanks used the term recently at the Cannes film festival to support the actions of US troops in Iraq: ‘These are extremely tough times – not just for America but for the world. We are in a difficult grey area that defies logic.’ Muslims can empathise, while looking at photos of American soldiers smiling over the bodies of dead Iraqis, with the grey areas that defy logic—it certainly defies their own.
Dr Abdullah Robin