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Please 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 there.

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 and hence the mantra of "these acts don't represent the American culture."

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 Abu Ghraib. 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?"

Less anecdotally 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 this administration has engaged in preemptive maneuvers to absolve its own soldiers from the oversight of the International Court of Justice for War Crimes.

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 at Pentagon has been actively promoting a state of legal ambiguity around the interrogation of prisoners accused of terrorism and combating the United States. He has referred to the first article of the Geneva Convention that protects the rights of the civilians as "law 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 reaction of the accused and their apologists as yet another form of denial prevalent in the American culture. Rush Limbaugh, the right wing radio talk show host has come up with the bizarre explanation that what happened in Abu Ghraib was a form of "hazing" and nothing to get too worked up about.

The attorney of one of the alleged culprits has obscenely suggested that his client must be excused for stripping hapless Iraqi prisoners and arranging them in pornographic piles because he was not schooled in the intricate details of the Geneva Convention. Equally laughable is the 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 damage 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 upon their release from Iraqi captivity for merely inconveniencing their government.

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Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features . See Homepage

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