It was in early 2004 that the rumours started circulating. And then the photographs came, at first one by one, then by the hundreds, until soon the whole world had seen images of just what the Americans were calling ‘justice’ and the Iraqis were calling ‘horrific torture’. There were images of Iraqi prisoners hooded, with electrodes attached to their bodies, being menaced by dogs, forced to walk with dog collars around their necks, and made to form pyramids of naked bodies. Photo after sickening photo hit the public eye until an outraged roar of voices from shocked onlookers throughout the world began to grow in volume and clamour for heads to roll.
Five years later, in April this year, the Pentagon announced its decision to release another batch of photographs from Abu Ghraib – perhaps hundreds of new images – in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Soon after, two senior Senators wrote to President Obama, urging him to reverse the Pentagon’s decision and block the release of the photographs, believing the release would “empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country’s image, and endanger our men and women in uniform” ; which is the same as saying that the photos would disgust the rest of the world, and make the Iraqis hate them. Now I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like an admission that torture, or prisoner abuse, is indeed counter-productive – that its use only inflames moderates to turn toward terrorism. And if prisoner abuse creates terrorists, an informed public discussion of such practices can indeed serve the public good. If kept secret, these photographs will do much more harm to America’s image in the long run.
In his article for National Review Online, former attorney Andrew McCarthy supported the Senators’ claim that by releasing the photographs, Obama was “making a conscious choice that will imperil [their] nation and its defenders”. What Mr. McCarthy forgot is that the war itself was that choice. When the war on Iraq started, nobody in the Bush administration could have been blind enough not to see that no amount of propaganda could suppress the hatred and desire for revenge that was sure to follow. Yet, it was them who made the ‘conscious choice’ to go ahead and attack, it was them who chose to ‘imperil’ American lives despite knowing full well that America’s violence would only incite more violence on the part of the Iraqis. Where was this acute fear of reprisals when they decided to invade and destroy an alien country, bring suffering and misery to innocent people and incite infinitely more Muslims to hate America than any number of photos possibly could? The photos are there only to end this unholy cycle of war-hatred-violence-war that could go on infinitely if no one is able to see the stark, naked truth and realize the futility of it all.
McCarthy maintained that the images must be suppressed in order to safeguard the American public, and that it was in Obama’s power to do so. Mr. McCarthy, don’t you see the danger of justifying what you know is wrong by giving the excuse of ‘national security’? After all, the torture at Abu Ghraib itself had much the same reasoning – it was being carried out to ultimately protect the American people by extracting as much information as possible from the Iraqis. But that doesn’t change the fact that the methods for interrogation were barbaric, regardless of the ends they were used for. Some may support the policy of using violence to fight violence, but ultimately where does that leave us? Exactly at the same level as the terrorists! Any and every wrong can be defended by saying that it safeguards the security of the people. The Iraq war and the Afghanistan bombings too were fueled by exactly this kind of spurious reasoning. But it’s worthwhile to remember that like a mirror image, the terrorists too truly believe they are killing Americans to safeguard their religion. Everyone is trying to safeguard somebody or the other, the difference lies only in how they do the safeguarding. America will lose any difference they may have from the ones they claim are evil if they use the same methods – lies, deceit and torture – as their enemies, no matter what justification they give for it.
The problem is not the photographs, the problem is what they show in those captured moments of sadism on display – and we must not forget that. Focusing on the photos is to a narrow and shallow end, and it smacks of the narrowness that is characteristic of the entire Iraq campaign. And saying that the torture photos will incite people against Americans is like saying documentaries about the Holocaust will incite Jews against Germans. We must run that risk if it opens the eyes of the world to reality, because the alternate darkness of ignorance is not an option. And if these photos are so revolting that even the Pentagon hesitates to show them, then we must stop any future photos from materializing – not by withholding the photos but by eliminating the cause of them.
During the Congressional hearings, Janis Karpinski, the commander of Abu Ghraib, later admitted that 90 percent of the detainees in the prison were innocent. And this serves to illustrate one very important point – war not only makes monsters of the victims, it makes monsters out of the attackers as well. However many times the US government tries to sell us the idea of a benign war that was just to its victims, the photos at Abu Ghraib give the lie to the claim that any justice was imparted to the Iraqis. The bottom line is that war is bad – bad for the psyche of the victim, even worse for the psyche of the victimizer. And the Abu Ghraib photos support that assertion.
Then just few days ago, on May 13th, President Obama executed a complete reversal of his decision to release the photographs, ostensibly because “no good would come” from disclosure.
No good would come? The release of the original photos led to several investigations on the abusive practices used by the US army. And despite the then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s attribution of them to “a few bad apples”, a Senate Armed Services Committee linked the abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere directly to policies enacted by Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, and the US government’s backing of the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods. This resulted in an overhaul of several US laws and guidelines relating to prisoner treatment, and to the passing of the Detainee Treatment Act. It led to the questioning of the inhumane interrogation techniques used by US forces on its prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Most important of all, it made the entire country sit up and take notice of what human rights activists had been saying for a long time – that war by the US was no different from any other war, that the food packets being dropped as a relief measure in the invaded areas was merely a charade for the cameras, and that the US government’s claims to benevolence were a lie.
The question is – why should we in India bother about all this when there are much more pressing matter closer to home? Because of the universality of war! Because no matter how many people are tired of the endless talks and negotiations and backhanded manipulations that go on with Pakistan about the Kashmir issue, no matter how many people want a clean-cut war so that we can destroy Pakistan and end everything once and for all – the truth is that war is never clean-cut. War will never end it once and for all. War – whether it turns upright moral youths into sadistic torturers, or forces victims into violent retaliation – always has unexpected and unwanted consequences. War is a messy, brutish, bestial exercise in domination that hurts far more people than anyone intends to, and sparks a cycle of violence that has terrible consequences. And so we in India must do everything in our power to avert it, and if that means groveling in front of Pakistan ministers or pandering to the LeT hawks once in a while, then so be it.