May 20, 2004 | Graham

How will Abu Ghraib look in retrospect?

Conventional wisdom says that the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison damage the US position in Iraq. This wisdom may be true in the very short term, but may not be in the long-term. The US response to Abu Ghraib is already demonstrating the benefits of a western democratic system, and there is plenty of evidence that Iraqis are keen to take advantage of that system.
Take this story from Aljazeera. Saddam Salih, one of those prisoners tortured and photographed naked has come forward and identified himself, no small disclosure in a society that values modesty. He presumably attended yesterday’s court martial of Army Specialist, Jeremy Svits, one of his torturers, because that was his intention. More significantly he intends to sue his tormentors.
Salih was formerly detained and tortured under the Ba’athist regime, but I am sure he never attended any courts martial, because there weren’t any, and bringing a civil suit wouldn’t have been an option either. Salih may have preferred Ba’athist torture to US torture – he actually says this – but surely he prefers western justice to Hussein’s. More importantly, by making use of due process, a tool not previously available to him, he actually becomes part of the US paradigm. Salih’s ordeal has brought him in from the cold.
The western response to the torture has been hysterical. We have been told that it will destroy the good name of the US in the region. How do we know this? We know it because journalists have interviewed various spokesmen who tell us this. Do we know whether this is a personal or widespread view? No. In fact, in the past when scientifically based opinion polls have been taken in Iraq they have shown that the popular view has often been at odds with the views being reported by journalists. Spokespersons, by definition, have a case to put, yet there is little attempt to try to delve more deeply and interview people who might be less partisan.
This poor reporting has been coupled with bad ethical analysis. Any number of op-eds have asserted that big crimes are exactly the same as major crimes; and that therefore these tortures are equivalent to those under Hussein. This is like saying that a smash and grab is the same as robbery with violence. Both are wrong, but you’ll sit in jail a lot longer for the second than the first because magnitude and context do count.
These op-eds also miss the point that under Hussein this behaviour was institutionalized, whereas under the US it is not – the investigation and the courts martial are proof of that. The test of a society is not whether it contains wrong-doers. All societies do. The test is how you deal with those wrong-doers. The US system is passing this test at the moment with its stars and stripes in full flight.
Some will object that the torture was institutionalized, in the sense that a number of the accused say they were acting on orders, and some accounts have Donald Rumsfeld, if not President Bush himself, involved in that chain of command. Even if that is true, and I am not making a judgement on it, the US judicial and political system will deal with the culprits. This is a country that has impeached Presidents before and will do so again.
There is no excuse for what has been revealed at Abu Ghraib, but it would be a pity if the suffering of the victims and our almost, literally, pornographic wallowing in it and our accompanying apprehension of guilt by association, were allowed to be the sole focus of our response. The suffering of these men can be turned into a benefit of sorts to them, and to their region.
It is relatively painless and easy, when you are the world’s sole superpower, to enter and shoot up a country that produces $50 billion GDP per year by injecting $200 billion worth of men and munitions into it. It is also relatively easy to put in place transitional governments and draft constitutions. It is not relatively painless to treat your own with the same fairness as you would the other. In doing that, the US will demonstrate that, whatever the confusion between aims and outcomes at the moment, they do have honourable intentions.
Looking back, we may find that Abu Ghraib was one of the turning points in Arab understanding, and perhaps even grudging acceptance, of liberal democratic principles, even as implemented by the US. It is in the interests of all to look at it this way.

Posted by Graham at 1:14 pm | Comments Off on How will Abu Ghraib look in retrospect? |
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