Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Iraq Photos

Guest editorial by Den Valdron

I feel compelled to make a comment or two about the pictures and reports of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Very, very, very important things are being missed here. Think about it: *Who took these photos?* *Why were these photos taken?* *What were the people who took these photos thinking?*

All we are doing is looking at and reacting to the photos, and assuming that the photos are the single accurate barometer of what is going on. This is like looking at an arrow, instead of the direction it points.

One observation I have to make about these photos is the humour and the complete lack of shame to be found in them. The Americans and the jailers, when appearing, are grinning, laughing, giving thumbs up. They are completely unaware and innocent of any idea that what they are doing is wrong or offensive.

Think about that. There is a bunch of people whose moral compass has broken down so completely, that they have no concept that scenes like the ones they're capturing are wrong. Instead, its cool, its funny, its great, they've got to take a picture. Its a kodak moment!

The depiction of prisoners is also fascinating. There's a recurrent theme of sexual degradation here. Forced nudity, forced poses of homosexual coupling. Hooded nudity. Arrangement of bodies. This is serial killer pathology, presented without a trace of self consciousness or guilt and played for laughs. There is a very weird kind of distancing going on, the prisoners are being visually emasculated and dehumanized, hooding them, posing them suggests that on critical levels the jailers are not regarding them as human beings. Now, its played for fun in the pictures, but it suggests that underneath the 'fun' there is a real pathology going on, a fundamental inhumanity.

The electrodes picture is heavily laden with bizarre religious subtext - overtones of both Christian martydrom and the KKK. Given the religious and racial issues at work in Iraq, the apparent subtexts cannot possibly be accidental. Either they were deliberately imposed, or they were accidental but so powerful and easily perceived that the picture had to be taken and kept. Nobody takes pictures that aren't meaningful to them on some level, and if they do, they don't keep them. This one seems to have circulated.

But just because their moral compass has broken down, doesn't mean they don't have one. Now, if they're completely cool with this... what about the parts of their job, of what they do, that they think are not so funny. That they think are unpleasant or morally questionable... but still part of their duty. What about the parts that they would never take a picture of, and would never want to be in a picture of? Do you see where I am going?

These pictures are of the 'happy, wacky aspect of torture.' They are pictures by people who clearly think that there is a 'happy wacky aspect of torture.' Which suggests that they're also comfortable with other aspects of torture. Does this create any crushing sense of visceral horror?

What we've got here is a heady mixture of symbolic dehumanization with nudity and hoods, sexual emasculation and castration pathologies apparent in the posing of bodies, a complete lack of any sense or perception of humanity, and images of racial and religious derangement, all accompanied by images of laughing, happy, thumbs up jailers.

I keep coming back to this: They had no concept that their conduct was unacceptable. In fact, this was the fun part. This was the part that they were willing and happy to record with pictures, willing and happy to be in those pictures. This is the ceiling... after this, we go down.

So ask yourselves: What would they have found unacceptable to photograph? What acts would they have said 'wow, we can't take a picture of this, or we'll get in trouble some day.' What acts would provoke a moral recognition? What acts would provoke guilt? What acts would provoke a reluctance to record, or be recorded as a part of?

It strikes me that people will do unpleasant things for a while before they quit and say 'this is not acceptable. This is immoral and offensive, and I just can't do it.'
Think of it as the rule that: 'There's only so much shit a person will take.'

Well, these people have established a moral barometer for what they think is acceptable and fun. We're looking at it in the pictures. Somewhere further along, there is a hellscape that they find intolerable, a line that they won't or wouldn't cross. If what is in these pictures is just fine, then where the hell is the line they won't cross, if there is one?

What frightens me is that potentialy vast horrible ground between the line where they think pictures are fine, and the line they won't cross. What were they prepared to do? How far were they prepared to go? Consider the pathological subtexts, the dehumanization, sexual attack and emasculation, the contempt for religious standards, the invoking of a Klan image.

We cannot assume that just because there are no pictures or records of summary execution, or of electricity running through wired genitals, or of women being raped by dogs, or of men being doused with gasoline and burned alive that these things are not happening or not out of the question. We can only assume that the jailers would not find these things funny enough to take pictures of, and would not want to be held accountable and responsible. We can no longer assume that it is not happening, and we certainly cannot assume that it is beyond the boundaries of possibility. We cannot assume that it cannot happen in the future. What we see in the pictures is a culture of pathological thinking and inhumanity.

The quotes from jailers are just as disturbing if you read between the lines. People seldom acknowledge guilt or wrongdoing. What people mostly do is minimize guilt or accountability, they admit to minor things but deny the big ones, they seek to externalize responsibility. All of these things are on display here.

If a man says, "I accidentally broke a few tables putting the fear into someone... but I didn't really hurt anyone," what we are seeing is a pattern of confession/evasion recognizeable to any seasoned police officer. What we have here is a confession of violent assault, in which the speaker is displacing the acknowledgement of violence into objects, which he sees as acceptable, and away from humans, which he knows is not acceptable. He's playing a game with himself and with us. The reality is that we may be looking at a man who has repeatedly beaten people halfway to death. Who may have actually beaten people to death. A man who is engaged in minimizing and evading his conduct.

Another jailer notes that they were not given 'geneva convention' protocols or information. Essentially, he has committed horrible acts, he tells us, because no one has told him that he should not. Yet this is insupportable. If no one told him that he couldn't, then surely, he wouldn't have known he was doing anything wrong, could not have concealed or minimized his actions, and he would have been caught and nipped in the bud. So either he's lying and he is simply evading blame. Or he was swimming in a culture where his conduct was completely acceptable to everyone around him, including his superiors and supervisors. Again, any seasoned police officer interrogating a suspect has heard this kind of thing many times before. Frightening?

Another jailer, or possibly the same one, notes that he believed he had the tacit approval of intelligence or interrogation agencies. 'Military intelligence loves us, they let us watch.' What he is saying is that his actions and activities were perfectly acceptable to the establishment, his culture of torture was condoned and accepted, even encouraged.

Finally, consider the gloating involved. "We broke them in a few hours," one jailer brags. This is very close to the culture of bragging one found in Nazi camp guards. When dealing with profoundly immoral acts, the Nazi's engaged in emotional transference. They refused to deal with the morality or humanity of their acts, rather they shifted the emotional focus of their acts to aspects in which they could take pride in... such as efficiency. Thus, you could have bureaucrats congratulating themselves on the assembly line speed of the gas chambers, or camp guards bragging about their ability to keep prisoners in line with hideous brutality. They were refusing to think about what they were doing... there was a physical refusal here that is almost on the level of repressed memory... rather they were choosing to think very hard instead about the quality or the efficiency with which they were doing it. "I'm doing horrible things, yes. But that's not important. The important part is that I am doing it extremely well!"

What does it take to break a prisoner in a few hours? How far will you go to break a prisoner in a few hours? How offensive, how much of a challenge, how much of a threat to ones own efficiency and competence is a prisoner who refuses to break in a few hours? And what's the outer limit that you'll go to get that job done right, to make sure that prisoner is broken in a few hours?

What we are seeing with this quote is evidence of a classic and very dangerous pathology.

To simply look at the pictures and the quotes and say 'okay, this is really bad. But it's not as bad as it could be or as bad as other things we've heard about...' really misses the point.

There will never be pictures of men and women being tortured to death. There will never be pictures of women raped by dogs in torture chambers, of bodies mutilated, genitals removed, of electric needles, strangulation, suffocation or savage beatings. Saddam's own security forces, safe in their private prisons and torture chambers never took those pictures. No one takes those pictures. No one ever admits to doing those things, at least not in public. There are things that are not talked about, that are concealed, hidden, evaded. There are acts and the potentials and capacities to act that are buried...

...except through occasional glimpses, where the perpetrators have so completely lost their moral compass that they reveal themselves or reveal their pathology without understanding or admitting what they are slipping out.

This is one of those revelations. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now officially in free fall.

Den Valdron is a lawyer, author, and frequent commentator on social and policing issues.