The Terrible Shrug

by Michael Doliner

May 24, 2004


Much has been said about the torture pictures and reports, but I think one point has been missed. When I look at the picture of Lynndie England pointing at the genitals of a prisoner, or Charles Graner smiling behind the naked pyramid of Iraqis, or the picture of a prisoner cowering before jailers, I am doubly horrified by the expressions upon the faces of the torturers. The pictures look like snapshots from a vacation. The torturers are vamping like children in front of a camera, and this makes what they are doing all the more humiliating to the victims. They seem to have no sense that to abuse and humiliate is something dark and unholy. What we are seeing here is even worse than torture, as awful as that is. For here is a methodical attempt to destroy the victims as human beings, whereas ordinary torture to extract information has no such goal. The ordinary torture victim suffers, but retains his humanity if only because he is required to speak; here the victim is of no account, a piece of rubbish. The macabre playfulness of the torturers serves to humiliate the victims still further by diminishing even the value of their suffering.

But the victims are not the only ones suffering. People have often done horrible things to one another in the past, but they have known those actions to be horrible. When someone does horrible deeds and does not know those deeds are horrible, that is pathology. The torturers' insouciance in the face of their own abominations marks this pathology, but it is certainly not theirs alone. The senators on the Armed Services Committee with their pompous expostulations and the military witnesses appearing before it scrambling to avoid blame reveal their own ignorance of the horror, and so share the pathology with the torturers. Nor do the rest of us escape as we go about our daily business as if nothing has happened. We too are ignorant and display the same pathology. Meanwhile, the rest of the world gapes at us as if through the bars at monsters in their cages.

It seems that Americans simply can't understand the extent of this humiliating violation. We find it so easy to shrug it off. Perhaps it is because our prison system has made it commonplace. We think of demeaning rape and other humiliations as par for the course in prison. If some child who happened to be caught with drugs is brutalized, oh well. We easily find some justification, some sophistic mental gymnastic that justifies their humiliation and distinguishes the victims from ourselves. We might contrast this with what happened to Socrates in his prison. On the day he is condemned to die his chains were removed and he conversed in his normal way with his friends. When the time came no one injected him or electrocuted him or hanged him. The jailer gave him the poison and he drank it himself. No one violated him or even touched him. The Greeks, of course, had slaves to whom this inviolability was not granted precisely because they were thought to be less than human. But we have denied any such intrinsic differences, and our culture is based upon this denial.

Our literature and our cinema offer us very little help. Our art shows plenty of torture, but tosses it off lightly. Torture reveals the bad guy as bad and is the mark of his badness. His family or friends having suffered torture, the good guy is justified in his equally bad behavior. Ultimately, somehow, all is always made well again. The easy healing at the end prevents seeing the violation in all its horror.

Torture, but not humiliating torture, is central to Christianity. Jesus is a God and not a man. He often seems to be above it all. He is suffering for us and his suffering is part of the plan. He knows of it in advance and accepts it. In the end he will be resurrected whole and purified. But his pain is ennobling and not undignified. Jesus is never humiliated as the Abu Ghraib victims are. He is put up on a cross for all to see, not hidden away and dumped in an alley like a piece of garbage. Even if we imagine that Jesus could have endured anything and retained his humanity and his godhood, it is precisely because the rest of us can't that such torture is an abomination. In any case, from the American response it is clear the Christianity does not reveal to Americans what is so terrible about all this.

The Abu Ghraib pictures show a torture that is intended to demean and humiliate the victim. Physical pain is not the main point, and the victim suffers less pain than he might with other forms of torture. But humiliation costs the victim his human dignity, and that, it seems, is the torturers intention. He is shown to be worth nothing both by what is done to him and the attitude of those doing it. Nor is the victim the only target. It is clear that the entire population not only of Iraq, but of all Muslim countries were to be humiliated through this degradation. For the victims were picked up indiscriminately off the street and might have been anybody. What distinguished them was simply bad luck.

But why should only Muslims identify with the victims? Whoever fails to do so is only lying to himself. Anyone who witnesses such humiliation is also diminished, for he can only distinguish himself from the victim through sophistry. What is being violated here is the victim's fundamental humanity. With the dog collar he is being made into an animal and a slave; with sexual humiliation his integrity is shattered. Anyone in his place would suffer as he does. No, it didn't happen to us, but only because we were not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our own humanity is thus worth no more than the flip of a coin. We are human or not only as chance has made us so. Thus, chance is our new God.

To the Greeks the Iliad was a sacred text with all the wisdom for life. It doesn't contain an example of such violation, but its culmination is in Achilles' violation of Hector's dead body. Enraged by Hector's having killed his friend Patroclus, Achilles kills him and drags his body around the walls of Troy behind his chariot. Dragging the body and allowing the dogs to feed on it was and abomination and everyone knew it was an abomination. The goddess and god, Aphrodite and Apollo, protected Hector's body from being torn by the dogs and the dragging, and Patroclus's funeral pyre refused to light. The point is that everybody knew that despoiling the body was unholy, even Achilles. When the Fallujah resisters killed the four American contractors and then burned their bodies they committed an abomination and intended to commit an abomination, but at least they and everyone else knew it was an abomination. And they did it, as Achilles did, in a fit of rage. The torturers of Abu Ghraib, smoking, laughing, untroubled, posed the way they might on a trip to the Grand Canyon. Now, of course, it is natural that we respond more intensely to the violation of Americans in Fallujah, but the torturers of Abu Ghraib, by humiliating the prisoners so casually, demeaned them and us even more. To despoil a body violated its human dignity, but to humiliate someone casually denies him human status completely. Such is the meaning of the "banality of evil," which might have been more clearly expressed as the evil of banality. Their treating what they do as utterly ordinary is the final ineradicable horror.

But I do not mean to single out these soldiers as particularly insensitive. Twisted as they were, they were, I fear, no more than ordinary Americans doing a job. Some have said that they were enraged at the Fallujah violations or at 9/11. I'm afraid the pictures give the lie to this. No, there was no heat of passion, no real serious sense of horror at all. But it is also clear from the pictures that all around them there was no sensitivity to such abomination. Those around them must have condoned their actions, and almost certainly ordered them. The Red Cross report, the Taguba report, evidence coming out of Afghanistan and Guantánamo, all attest to a culture of intentional human violation. It was all just ordinary day to day routine operation.

The Abu Ghraib abominations grow as our elected representatives respond to them inadequately. Bush's perfunctory apology reveals all too clearly his wish to merely bury the incident. The abuse is of no importance and he wishes it would go away. Rumsfeld's plea of ignorance is pathetic, as is the Senate's failure to question him further about it. Either he knew and he is lying and guilty of promulgating a policy of torture, or he didn't know and he had inadequate control of his department. Either way he should resign.

Near the end of the Iliad Priam, Hector's father, comes to Achilles to beg for the body of his son. He reminds Achilles of his own father and of his dead friend Patroclus. Achilles, the ultimate warrior, weeps, and only then can he return Hector's violated body to Priam. It is in the recognition of their common humanity that the abomination can at last be expunged. Achilles, overcome by the death of his friend and recognizing Priam as like his own father, can plausibly return to himself, recognize his kinship to Priam in their common human suffering, and so restore order. Achilles committed his violation in a fit of rage that others can see as something like temporary insanity. His weeping is a breaking of the madness.

Bush's handlers instinctively saw this when they had him say that "this is not like us." But a policy of abuse carried on with bureaucratic regularity, as opposed to a single instance, cannot plausibly be blamed on temporary loss of oneself to rage or some other emotion. Such a bureaucratic policy must be pursued without emotion, in cold blood, or rather with no blood. Those who pursue such a policy can only shrug when faced with their own actions. "What's the big deal?" is the hallmark of the pathology.

Bush and his administration have pursued a policy in which Iraqis, Afghans, and many others including some Americans, can be treated with utter disdain. Absurd legalisms grease the way for abominations in many places, and all is done without emotion and with a shrug, like pulling weeds or killing insects. Abu Ghraib is special only because of the pictures. Senators, generals, and Cabinet members only reveal the loss of something of their humanity when they express their dismissive response to the abominations. Their pathetic party loyalties cost them far more than they know. It should be obvious, and is obvious to the rest of the world, that Bush's words all serve to conceal an indifference to and contempt for lives outside those of his circle. And this circle is a lot smaller than most Americans imagine. It certainly does not include the soldiers whose funerals he will not attend. Can you plausibly believe that it includes you, gentle reader?

It is tempting to blame Bush and his administration for our appalling condition, and to be sure he deserves a lot of blame. His cabal of will-to-power junkies are certainly the worst American administration ever, and their wars will in all likelihood cause immense suffering. But as bad as they are, I fear they are only a reflection of a deep pathology within the American public. What horrifies me more than the Bush administration is its public acceptance. For where is a corrective to come from? The palpable desire to minimize what has happened is, at bottom, a desire to diminish human life itself, yet nobody seems to notice. No, I feel that very few have any sense of what it means to violate a human body, let alone a living person. But the response to Abu Ghraib indicates just how cheaply Americans value life in spite of their insistence to the contrary. To me the indifference to such actions expresses acquiescence in the sentiment that human life is insect-like.

Undoubtedly, when Americans acquiesce in the degrading treatment of Iraqis they separate themselves from them. They are, after all, the enemy. As Senator Inhofe (R-OK) put it, "... they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents." But of course many were nothing of the sort. They were people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and none of them had been tried. This is war, and in war people do horrible things. It is said to be necessary in war to divide the world into "us" and "them" and to do everything we can to destroy "them." It has become a commonplace that in modern war the enemy is dehumanized, and must be. But it should be all too clear that there is no permanent "us," that the exclusionary circle can be drawn in many different ways, and that all these ways are, ultimately, arbitrary. To make peace in the end we must find a way to break the exclusionary circle and its arbitrary divisions. We can only draw this circle and then erase it through a kind of fake forgetting that is, in fact, mental and spiritual damage. That is especially so in this war, for after all the early pretexts have melted away, we now claim we are fighting to make "them" into "us" -- to turn Iraq into a democracy. To treat them as insects is to declare that we ourselves are insects.

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans

Iraq on Swans


Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Published May 24, 2004
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