accept our sincere denials
A sociology of Abu Ghraib
May 13, 2004
Denial is an appropriate description for the reaction of the administration
of President George W. Bush and the majority of American electronic
media to the atrocities committed at the Abu Ghraib prison. They
are all shocked, surprised, rendered well-nigh speechless, and
finally, outraged by these events. And, they make an offering of
their real or contrived confusion to the world -- often in
lieu of apologies. They can't understand how American citizen
soldiers could have acted so ghoulishly towards their captives.
President Bush has actually exhorted the Arabs to understand that
he doesn't understand. In the cacophony of synchronized gnashing
of the teeth and moaning by the Bush administration and Pentagon
there is no shortage of pledges "to get to the bottom of
this" with unmistakable intentions of clearing the reputation
of American occupying forces.
However, neither the prosecution
of the culprits, nor the more dramatic measures of firing the Secretary
of Defense and bulldozing the Abu Ghraib prison suggested by some
in the American Congress would constitute getting to the rock bottom
of this scandal. America can cleanse herself from the contagion
of Abu Ghraib not by disowning but by owning up to what happened
Sociologically speaking, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib
must be understood as a form of "social action." What
those few people did was the sharp edge of a huge wedge that has
grown in American social consciousness.
American political establishment
and a fair number of its media outlets however, tend to view
these manifestations of violence and sexual aggression as the exceptional
acts of deviance such as the rare appearance of mass murderers
and sexual criminals in all societies. They much rather see these
acts as psychologically rather than sociologically determined
hence the mantra of "these acts don't represent the
The refusal to see the events of Abu Ghraib
as belonging to the continuum of the American political culture
of the last two and a half years is tantamount to a form of collective
hysteria, the analogue of temporary amnesia that afflicts individuals
who have suffered a trauma.
In their state of "shock and awe" most
Americans are unable to recognize themselves in what happened in
They deny that the national orgy of righteous indignation that
has inundated their nation after the Bloody Tuesday of 2001 was
the prime mover of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath in Abu
Ghraib. That blind, Achillean rage and not lust for oil, profits
and domination irrigated the roots of the American popular support
for the invasion of Iraq. In an environment lacking in rational
checks brought about by the neo conservative administrators,
the same animus dominated the Abu Ghraib.
Allow me to provide a "native's
account" of the state of consuming wrath that has engulfed
America for the last two and a half years.
Two weeks after the
terrorist attacks of the September of 2001 I overheard a comment
by an employee of a Starbucks outlet in the Bucktown neighborhood
of Chicago. Boasting that she was an army reservist the young
woman behind the counter said that she couldn't wait to go to Afghanistan
and bring back an Afghan toe as a souvenir. The sickening comment
did not seem to sour anyone's Grande.
In my health club in
the Gurnee suburb of Chicago I have witnessed NASCAR dads nod
in approval and mouth: "damn right" to rhetorical question
posed by a succession of simpering Fox News anchors: "is
torture justified when dealing with terrorists?"
President George W. Bush's administration, enjoying the approval
of a majority of the Americans and the blessings of the Patriot
Act has indefinitely imprisoned foreign nationals in harsh
conditions both in United States and at Guantanamo Bay. Furthermore
administration has engaged in preemptive maneuvers to absolve
its own soldiers
from the oversight of the International Court of Justice for
Finally, the neo conservative political elite has
been active in sabotaging the internal oversight that has traditionally
acted as a rational check on the behavior of military interrogators.
Douglas J. Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
has been actively promoting a state of legal ambiguity around
the interrogation of prisoners accused of terrorism and combating
United States. He has referred to the first article of the
Geneva Convention that protects the rights of the civilians as
in the service of terrorism."
In short, I would agree with the advocates of the seven reservists
from the 372nd Military Police Company that have been charged
in connection with the events of Abu Ghraib. They must
not be treated
as fall guys and sacrificed as scapegoats for the purposes
of national catharsis.
But it is important to also consider
the accused and their apologists as yet another form
of denial prevalent in the American culture. Rush Limbaugh, the
wing radio talk show host has come up with the bizarre
that what happened in Abu Ghraib was a form of "hazing"
and nothing to get too worked up about.
The attorney of one of
alleged culprits has obscenely suggested that his client
must be excused for stripping hapless Iraqi prisoners
in pornographic piles because he was not schooled in
the intricate details of the Geneva Convention. Equally laughable
claim of Lynndie England, 21 shown in various sadistic
poses with denuded
prisoners: she was simply "at the wrong place,
at the wrong time."
The tendency to evade personal responsibility
even when ones transgressions have caused irreversible
to the national reputation, interests and safety,
is symptomatic of
the extreme individualism of the American society.
For all the
good it would have done, it is obvious that Americans
shall not receive from the Abu Ghraib seven a fraction of the
mortifying shame that the former Japanese hostages expressed
release from Iraqi captivity for merely inconveniencing
goodbye to spam!
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology
at Lake Forest
College, IL, USA. See