Friday, April 30, 2004

Some shocking photos

Being in Australia, I have had a rare privilege to be at least one step ahead of the American news cycle on the explosive story of prisoner abuse by US military guards at Abu Ghraib. Although they aired on CBS's "60 minutes 2" first, they hit Australia in time for the evening news. Moreover, while the Australian media quickly picked up the story, the American media, and the satellite news channels, seemed initially at a loss how to cover it. So I've seen the story evolve from a few bloggers citing rather colourless piece in the New York times, to today's shocked reaction, disgusted presidential response, and appalled reaction by Aaron Brown on CNN's "newsnight."

The impetus is the pictures themselves. I knew as soon as I saw them this was an explosive story. Descriptions of them in the New York times don't do them justice. Only the pictures convey the reality. As soon as I saw them, I was appalled. They are just obscene. They overwhelm spin and talking points. When Kevin Rudd, Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesman, appeared on Lateline to discuss them, he hadn't yet seen them, and his prepared talking points were drastically inadequate to sum up the reality they present. The normal political doublespeak fails; only unreserved condemnation is possible.

What is the significance of this abuse? I believe if I was an Iraqi and I saw those photos, I'd reach for my gun and try to kill every American I could find. Not to condone it, just saying what I think my reaction would be. Those are images of torture. Those are images of horrendous degradation. And beyond that, the torture and degradation, is the sheer pornographic pleasure these prisoner's captors take in the prisoner's humiliation. These are images out of "Salo", out of Marquis de Sade. And if I am shocked, then imagine what the Islamic world, who are just now seeing them on Al-Jazeera, must feel.

And there is worse; photos, and treatment, that we haven't seen. Stories of dogs being set on prisoners, of prisoners forced into positions of sexual copulation, of a rape of a teenager.

That's just the impact of the pictures; what of the story? Well, the US military is in damage control. But there's a problem here: this clearly goes up a long way. Far from being the actions a few prison guards getting out of control, the New York Times piece makes it clear that the US reservists were encouraged to "soften up" the detainees by the interrogators at the prison. They wrote home happily about the success they were having. It's only now that we are seeing the reality of what "softening up" really entailed. Clearly higher ups are involved. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander at the camp, has already been implicated. The CIA might be also be implicated, as well as "civilian contractors" who were responsible for some of the interrogations.

And of course, it has wider implications beyond the conditions at Abu Ghraib. The US military's credibility has been destroyed. I used to be one of the skeptics about the US army's alleged abuse of prisoners. I no longer willing to dismiss such reports as exaggeration.

In my next post, "moral clarity", I will consider the reaction to the story, and some of the spin from the right.