This War and Racism




A

mong
the millions of words that have appeared since late April about
abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one has been
notably missing: racism. 


Overall,
when it comes to racial aspects, the news coverage is quite Pentagon
Correct. The outlook is “apple pie” egalitarian, with
the media picture including high-profile officers who are African
American and Latino. Meanwhile, inside the policy arena, Colin Powell
and Condoleezza Rice are frequently in front of cameras to personify
Uncle Sam in blackface. 


The
U.S. government doesn’t drop bombs on people because of their
race. Washington’s geo-po litical agendas lead to military
actions. But racial biases make the war process easier when the
people being killed and maimed aren’t white people. An oversize
elephant in the U.S. media’s living room is a reality that
few journalists talk about in public: The U.S. keeps waging war
on countries where the victims resemble people who often experience
personal and institutional racism in the United States. 


In
the U.S. media coverage of the uproar after release of the Abu Ghraib
photos, one of the only references to race was fleeting and dismissive,
midway through a

Wall Street Journal

opinion piece on May
3: “So far the alleged grotesqueries are more analogous to
the nightmares that occur occasionally at American prisons, when
rogue and jaded guards freelance to intimidate and humiliate inmates.
The crime, then, first appears not so much a product of endemic
ethnic, racial, or religious hatred, as the unfortunate cargo of
penal institutions, albeit exacerbated by the conditions of war,
the world over.” 


That
essay, by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, typifies
media denial about what’s happening in 0U.S. cells populated
so disproportionately by low-income blacks and Latinos. In the world
of the

Journal

editorial page’s convenient fantasy,
guards “occasionally” choose to “freelance to intimidate
and humiliate inmates.” In the world of prisoners’ inconvenient
reality, guards frequently intimidate, humiliate—and brutalize. 


Media
denial lets the U.S. military—and the U.S. incarceration industry—off
the hook. Yet, it’s significant that a man implicated as a
ringleader in the Abu Ghraib crimes, Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick,
“had also worked for six years as a guard for the Virginia
Department of Corrections,” according to Seymour Hersh’s
article in the May 10 edition of the

New Yorker

. A special
agent in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, Scott
Bobeck, testified that Sgt. Frederick and a corporal apparently
“were put in charge because they were civilian prison guards
and had knowledge of how things were supposed to be run.”



That
knowledge came from working as guards in a U.S. prison system that
now has 2,033,000 people behind bars—63 percent of them black
or Latino. With racial minorities vastly over-represented in federal
and state prisons and local jails, such numbers reflect profound
institutional biases that converge at the intersection of racism
and unequal justice based on economic class. 


A
public-interest group, the Sentencing Project, notes that “black
males have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some
point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17 percent chance; white
males have a 6 percent chance.” 


Many
prisoners must cope with violence and duress. At the Stop Prisoner
Rape organization, executive director Lara Stemple points out: “For
women, whose abusers are often corrections officers, the rates of
sexual assault are as high as one in four in some facilities.” 


The
same government that runs this prison system also conducts foreign
policy that during the past four decades has resulted in bombing
and invading the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada,
Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. More circumscribed Pentagon missions
landed in Somalia and Haiti. In 1999, a major U.S.- led bombing
campaign caused enormous suffering among civilians in Yugoslavia.
Sudden missile strikes hit Libya and Sudan. U.S.-funded military
forces on several continents—from Nicaragua, El Salvador and
Guatemala to Angola to Indonesia—took many lives. 


Generally,
with the exception of Serbs, the victims of Pentagon firepower have
been people of color who’ve looked different than the U.S.’s
white majority and power structure. 


We
may want to view the large number of Latino and black GIs as reassurance
that U.S. warfare is race-neutral. But the decision to launch a
war is hardly democratic. Soldiers, by definition, follow orders
that result from a political process: skewed by the inequities of
power and the effects of prejudice. 


For
troops on the ground, racial bias—objectification of “the
other” —can have magnified impacts in an environment of
high stress and danger. As author Iris Chang has documented in

The
Rape of Nanking

, when Japan’s troops committed atrocities
on a massive scale against civilians in 1937, those crimes were
fueled by virulent anti-Chinese racism and indoctrination touting
Japanese racial superiority. 


We
might prefer to believe that racism plays no part in the politics
and media coverage of U.S. foreign policy. But that’s about
as plausible as the claim that racism plays no part in U.S. society. 


Trying
to calm outrage by speaking to viewers of Arabic-language television
on May 5, George W. Bush said the people of Iraq “must understand
that what took place in that prison does not represent the America
that I know.” But as governor and president, he has rebuffed
every plea to ameliorate the flagrant injustices and brutalities
inside Texas courtrooms and prisons, and the entire country. 


During
the few minutes allotted to him as a guest on NPR’s “Talk
of the Nation” program, the executive director of Amnesty International
USA explained that efforts had been made to alert top Washington
officials to barbaric treatment of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody.
During the May 3 broadcast, William Schulz said: “Close to
a year ago, human rights groups went to the Pentagon, to the National
Security Council; the president himself issued a statement in which
he indicated that this kind of behavior was utterly inappropriate
and, of course, it is seen to have continued long after that statement
was issued. And one of the reasons, I’m afraid, is because
those who undertake this kind of activity, whether they be the prison
guards themselves or military intelligence or higher-ups, are able
to get away with it.” 


A
minute later, a caller—identified as Steve from Minneapolis—made
an insightful comment on the air.“I point out one other failing,
in addition to the other ones that Mr. Schulz has eloquently listed,
and that’s the media,” he said. “I mean, a year ago,
you could have been interviewing Mr. Schulz instead of today and
maybe that would have prevented, you know, this recent scandal of
torture.” 


While
the Bush administration did little but yawn about evidence of torture
and other abuses of Iraqi people at the hands of U.S. occupiers,
such disinterest was largely replicated in the U.S. news media.
“Ever since the war began, Amnesty International has been receiving
reports of Iraqis who have been taken into detention by Coalition
Forces and whose rights have been violated,” said an Amnesty
International press release dated March 18. “Some have been
held without charge for months. A number of detainees have been
tortured and ill-treated. Virtually none has had prompt access to
a lawyer, their family or judicial review of their detention.” 


A
statement from an independent credible source that some of the U.S.
military’s prisoners “have been tortured” would seem
to cry out for a quick response in the form of journalistic exploration.
But the statement conflicted with thousands of news stories that—one
way or another—portrayed U.S. troops as heroic and humane. 


Hersh,
who gained extensive access to official documents, writes that the
372nd Military Police Company’s “abuse of prisoners seemed
almost routine—a fact of Army life that the soldiers felt no
need to hide.” Unlike the U.S. mainstream press, some British
daily newspapers have explored the racist aspects of that abuse. 


In
the daily

Independent

, the longtime Middle East correspondent
Robert Fisk wrote that American and British soldiers who were involved
came from “towns and cities where race hatred has a home.”
He alluded to the pernicious role of some mass media entertainment—“the
poisonous, racial dribble of a hundred Hollywood movies that depict
Arabs as dirty, lecherous, untrustworthy and violent people.” 


In
the Arab world, the photographs “have strengthened the feeling
that there is a deep racism underlying the occupiers’ attitudes
to Arabs, Muslims and the Third World generally,” Ahdaf Soueif
wrote in a

Guardian

article (May 5). She contended, “the
acts in the photos being flashed across the networks would not have
taken place but for the profound racism that infects the American
and British establishments.” 


Soueif
added: “There have been reports of U.S. troops outside Fallujah
talking of the fun of being a sniper, of the different ways to kill
people, of the ‘rat’s nest’ that needs cleaning out.
Some will say soldiers will be soldiers. But that language has been
used by neocons at the heart of the U.S. administration; both Kenneth
Adelman and Paul Wolfowitz have spoken of ‘snakes’ and
‘draining the swamps’ in the ‘uncivilized parts of
the world.’ It is implicit in the U.S. administration’s
position that anyone who does not agree that all of history has
been moving towards a glorious pinnacle expressed in the U.S. political,
ideological and economic system has ‘rejected modernity’;
that it is America’s mission to civilize and to punish.” 


That’s
what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he said in 1968:
“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to
teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true
revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of
war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”





Norman Solomon
is co-author of



Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t
Tell You.