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Torture and Abuse


The outrage and horror that spread and deepened after the revelations concerning Abu Ghraid prison in the spring of 2004 were fully justified, as was the revulsion at Nicholas Berg’s beheading and, earlier, the killings and mutilation of Fallujah.

Also outrageous, horrifying and repellent, however, were the innumerable responses from members of Congress and the White House, epitomized in Bush’s “This is not the America I know.” Ignorance for most is due to lack of opportunity; in Bush’s case, as with so many others in the USA, such ignorance is a consequence of arrogance, indifference, disdain, and even contempt for the plight of others.

However, that the widespead ignorance of the realities of our past and present is “understandable” does not make it less deplorable or less tragic in its consequences — or less dangerous. For all too long, these traits of Uncle Sam have provided the basis for our virtual addiction to a double standard for our behavior, both at home and abroad.

Such attitudes and behavior virtually scream out for comment and condemnation. What follows here is but a truncated noting of examples from the distant and recent past (see Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for the whole story,)

1. Torture and abuse began when we as a society began, with our arrival on this continent and our murderous treatment first of “Indians” and then of slaves. The reference here is not to the major crimes of stealing the native tribes’ lands and “Indian removal” nor to slavery itself, but only to the accompanying and enduring systematic torture, abuse and murder, including rampant, institutionalized, and large-scale rape of girls and women.

What was started in the 17th century in the first colonies had by the 18th century evolved into a raging epidemic that would go on for two centuries. Today’s mistreatment of “Indians” and African-Americans (among others), however disgraceful, is considerably more subdued and subtler than earlier; the harm done to its victims now measurable much more in sociopsychological and economic than in raw physical terms; in the past it was much more of both.

2. Then there is lynching. It began well before it was so named, most famously with the “witches of Salem” (and other women and places). During slavery, the murder of slaves was restrained; after all they were a vital form of private property; most of the lynching was, so to speak, indiscriminate.

But after the infamous Compromise of 1877 (which gave the South the freedom to do what it wished sociopolitically in exchange for the North to run free economically) lynching became a mania. Both before and after that, lynching was also all too common for others than blacks, not least in our venerated “Wild West.” It was still going on against the Chinese in the 20th century in “the city that cares” — my home town of San Francisco.

Lynching usually meant being hanged; it almost always meant torture before and during the murder. Long ago? In some sense, yes; except that between 1890 and 1940 there were several thousand lynchings, and some after that — including the legalized lynching of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953, the 1955 lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till (accused of whistling at a girl), and the recent dragging to death behind a car of a gay man.

It needs adding that the photos from Abu Ghraid showing laughing abusers are as nothing when set against the numberloss photos of lynchings attended by laughing and cheering crowds, often jumping with joy, as black men are hanging and writhing.

3. Then there is the matter of prisons and the death penalty — overlapping but separable for present purposes. It is striking and shocking that the USA leads the world in its rate of imprisonment and the use of the death penalty, jailing “people at eight times the rate of France and six times the rate of Canada,” NYT editorial, 5-17-04), as it does in the death penalty.

Prisons everywhere and always have provided conditions making torture and abuse easy and common — by prison guards and, with the guards’ acquiescence, by prisoners against other prisoners. Violence is a normal part of life, whether in men’s or women’s prisons, and rape is pervasive, systematic, and continuous — to the point where the victims are driven insane or are murdered. Rape is not confined to but is especially practiced mostly against young men and women by their fellow prisoners and by prison guards. It is joined by other and common forms of mistreatment that fall under the headings of abuse and even torture — whether the prisons are in the East, West, North, or South.

The foregoing says nothing about whether those who are imprisoned have been justly tried and sentenced. But something must be said about those who suffer the death penalty. Among the leading countries in the world, only three use that penalty: ourselves, Russia, and China. (The European Union will not admit membership to such a nation.)

In all cases it is known (through DNA tests, generally) that a significant percentage of those sentenced and executed have been innocent of the charges against them. In the USA this crime in itself has been most common because of our long and continuing history of racism — longest as applied to African and Native Americans and, but also and increasingly to other minorities; especially, in the Southwest, to Latinos. (Bush’s adopted state of Texas leads the country in executions: one of fifty states, it presently has more than 20 percent of all those on death row.)

So what’s all the fuss about Abu Ghraid, Mr. And Mrs. America? Doesn’t look good, that’s what.

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