Does anyone still remember the unfortunate Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf? As Saddam’s information minister, he heroically would deny the most evident facts and stick to the Iraqi line. Even as U.S. tanks were hundreds of yards from his office, al-Sahaf continued to claim that the television shots of the tanks on Baghdad streets were Hollywood special effects. Once, however, he did strike a strange truth. When told that the U.S. military already controlled parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: “They are not in control of anything-they don’t even control themselves!” When the scandalous news broke about the weird things going on in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, we got a glimpse of this very dimension of themselves that Americans do not control.
In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by U.S. soldiers, President George W. Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of the soldiers were isolated crimes that do not reflect what America stands and fights for – the values of democracy, freedom and personal dignity. And the fact that the case turned into a public scandal that put the U.S. administration on the defensive is a positive sign. In a really “totalitarian” regime, the case would simply be hushed up. (In the same way, the fact that U.S. forces did not find weapons of mass destruction is a positive sign: A truly “totalitarian” power would have done what cops usually do-plant drugs and then “discover” the evidence of crime.)
However, a number of disturbing features complicate this simple picture. In the past several months, the International Committee of the Red Cross regularly bombarded the Pentagon with reports about the abuses in Iraqi military prisons, and the reports were systematically ignored. So it was not that U.S. authorities were getting no signals about what was going on – they simply admitted the crimes only when (and because) they were faced with their disclosure in the media. The immediate reaction of the U.S. military officials was surprising, to say the least. They explained that the soldiers were not properly taught the Geneva Convention rules about how to treat war prisoners – as if one has to be taught not to humiliate and torture prisoners!
[This article appeared in In These Times on May 21st, 2004. For full article follow the link.]