Reviewing The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media

[The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media By Lila Rajiva (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2005), 224 pp. Paper, $14.95.]

When the Iraq war began in 2003, Lila Rajiva was so upset by it that she quit her job teaching school. Based in Baltimore, the author tracked press coverage as a web activist and sent out anti-war petitions. In late April 2004, the U.S. TV news magazine “60 Minutes II” ran photos of naked Iraqi men, sexually disgraced, in detention at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Rajiva penned a series of web articles on publications such as Dissident Voice and Counterpunch. They considered the absence of imprisoned Iraqi women in the torture photos, and how the media had covered – and covered up – Abu Ghraib and other reports of torture in the war on terror since the attacks of September 11 generally. Web journalism surfaced as a popular press during the lively 1999 street protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.

In The Language of Empire, Rajiva studies the factors and forces behind Iraqi detainees’ torture, shining a light on corporate journalism and its role as a service provider to the second Bush administration, which claimed, falsely and in violation of international law, that the U.S. had to go to war with Iraq, on the grounds of its involvement in the September 11 attacks and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

With a keen eye, Rajiva clarifies and demystifies the official narrative of the U.S. forces (including private contractors), to show how, corporeally, psychologically and sexually, they tortured Iraqi detainees. For the record, a partial list of such torture included asphyxiation, actual and simulated drowning and execution, rape and sodomy, prolonged incarceration in putrid, tiny metal cages in extreme weather and desecration of the Qur’an. She begins by analyzing circumstantial evidence from the scandal at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqis had also been tortured during the regime of Saddam Hussein. And she casts a critical eye on U.S. civilian and military policy-makers, broadly defined as the neo-conservative faction in the second Bush administration. Questions of what they knew and when they knew it remain unanswered, as the US occupation of Iraq officially ended in June 2004.

One of the convicted, photographed torturers of racially brutalized Iraqis at Abu Ghraib was Charles Graner, a former prison guard in Pennsylvania’s maximum-security penitentiary where black author and journalist Mumia Abu Jamal has also been held for years on death row. Crucially, Rajiva untangles the class-based media attacks on Graner as a kind of rogue redneck, cast as the proverbial bad apple in an otherwise pristine barrel and sentenced to eight years for his crimes. This framing of the scandal, according to Rajiva, had the partial effect of absolving U.S. policy-makers of legal and moral accountability – though one high-level official involved in authorizing the torture of Iraqi detainees was Michael Chertoff, head of the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department. He was later promoted to head of Homeland Security.

Rajiva decries a media narrative that erases vital history and, bogged down in political and legal minutiae, reinforces rather than critiques the official view of Iraq’s invasion and occupation as liberation. She strengthens her case by the placing of editorials and reports from the U.S. right wing and “mainstream” press into a historical context. Thus, for her, “the establishment media” (the western media news feeds like AFP and Reuters, the media conglomerates like CBS and Fox) “will continue to erase the colonial legacy of the modern world and present Abu Ghraib as an aberration, and yet present the policy behind it as somehow vital to a righteous ”war on terror.”” Rajiva argues succinctly that the absence of this contextual view from the mass media indicates its importance.

In addition, she explains how media coverage during Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings on the Iraq torture scandal was derailed by the beheading, in Iraq, of Nicholas Berg, an American-Jewish citizen and contractor. To deconstruct Berg’s tale (he, a GOP operative, was supposedly on a humanitarian mission), Rajiva turns to the mythic figure of Prometheus, the Greek titan. A stress on individualism and optimism was at the core of the media’s empathy with Berg. But Rajiva points out, it was “another instance of the extraordinarily skewed and inadequate news coverage that has left American audiences with no sense at all of the suffering inflicted on Iraqis during the ongoing pacification of their country, a suffering measured beside which a single death, however excruciating, does not have an equal political significance.” Berg in Iraq was an honored victim. But the tens of thousands Iraqis who perished during and after the U.S. invasion (following 14 years of trade sanctions, weapons inspections and U.S./UK bombing missions), were effectively deemed unworthy of the humanizing portrayal that Berg received. In the process, the media assiduously helps to create a flawed view of the world and the place of U.S. citizens within it.

In her final chapter, Rajiva turns to the relationship between media and religion. Charges that Israel oppresses the Palestinians have been judged by papers such as the New York Times to be evidence of anti-Semitism. And the U.S. Christian Right has, successfully, amplified this distortion of geopolitical reality. Meanwhile, the Jewish state’s continuing theft of Palestinian land has fateful consequences for the present. “It is this secular history that provides the context for the emergence of the anti-Arabism whose visible face we see in the extraordinarily demeaning images of Abu Ghraib,” Rajiva writes.

She is no academic who constructs a theory of empire, media and torture and leaves it at that; rather, she concludes with a heartfelt appeal “to the media of the future, to Web-based activists, citizen journalists and people of conscience to uncover the whole truth of the imperial conquest of Iraq and the overt and hidden savagery on which it rests, for which Abu Ghraib is the deepest and truest emblem.”

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, CA [email protected]>.

[First published in Race & Class in January 2007]

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