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Predictable Prison Atrocities


Being left, knowing some history, and paying reasonable attention to United States policy and society and current events mean rarely being surprised at egregious violations committed by people who command and wear the uniform of the United States. Is it surprising that American forces have committed “sadistic, blatant, and wanton abuses” (the language of Major General Antonio M. Taguba’s February report), frequently involving graphic psychosexual humiliation, against untold numbers (certainly much greater than what is being acknowledged) of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison?


It shouldn’t be. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been significantly enabled by America’s largely unacknowledged racism, which currently finds its safest permissible targets in the Arab world. It’s impossible to fully understand how the White House was able to claim that the bombing of innocent Afghans and the occupation of Iraq were reasonable responses to 9/11 without factoring-in racial antipathy. Anti-Arab racism makes it difficult for masses of Americans to grasp the elementary difference between a small group of predominantly Saudi terrorists and the people of Iraq or the rest of Arab society. We have merged the Middle East and other parts of southwest Asia (including largely Pashtun Afghanistan) into one big (inexplicably) America-hating terrorist blur, a demonized “them” that is simultaneously seen as inferior/subhuman and supremely threatening (kind of like many Germans saw Jews in the 1930s and 1940s). U.S. military authorities have more than encouraged that blurring in the minds of their troops, many of whom think that they have been killing, maiming, imprisoning and torturing Iraqis as revenge for September 11, 2001.


Of course, the U.S. has a long and bloody record of racist atrocity and occupation both within and beyond the “homeland” (what a lovely and revealing term), a topic I have written about at length for ZNet and Black Commentator (“Those Who Deny The Crimes of the Past: U.S. Racist Atrocity Denial, 1776-2004,” available online at www.blackcommentator.com/82/82_think_street.html). We remain in deep and dangerous (both for others and ourselves) denial about this terrible history, as was evident when our supposed “anti-war” and “opposition” candidate presidential John Kerry recently saw fit (on NBC’s “Meet Tim Russert,” I mean “Meet the Press”) to deny his own semi-courageous 1971 words on U.S. crimes in Vietnam. Those who deny the racist war and occupation crimes of the past are certain to repeat them, as long as they retain the power to do so.


I find the psychosexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel entirely un-surprising for at least two reasons. First, the military intelligence authorities knew very well that Arab culture contains severe strictures against the homosexual activity they directed Abu Ghraib’s new correctional officers to make Iraqi prisoners simulate in front of American cameras and female soldiers. As Middle East professor Bernard Haykel told Seymour Hersh, “such dehumanization is unacceptable in any culture, but it is especially so in the Arab world. Homosexual acts are against Islamic law and it is humiliating for men [even] to be naked in front of one another” (Hersh, “Torture At Abu Grhaib,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2004). Given these and related male-supremacist strictures in Muslim doctrine and culture (and here it not the place to debate the merits of all that), the “intelligence” officers were consciously imposing the fear of something akin to psychological death on their captives in order to “soften them up” for further interrogation directed, of course, at Iraqis’ determination to resist American takeover of their “homeland.”

During the invasion, it is worth recalling, U.S. military intelligence used megaphones to question the sexual proclivities of Arab men, hoping that the hyper-masculinity of Arab culture would flush out angry Iraqis ready to be butchered on some of the same roadsides where American GIs are currently losing lives and limbs.


Second, both racist policing and psychosexual humiliation are widely disseminated and normatively accepted staples of America’s corporate-crafted “popular” entertainment culture, including many among the recent crop of revolting “reality shows.” Just how many hours of fascist productions like “COPS,” “Jenny Jones,” and “Jerry Springer” (to name just a small share of the relevant references) does it take before your average future GI’s moral core is poisoned beyond repair? Throw the products of this revolting culture (which ironically fuels the fires of Bush’s Fundamentalist right) into the hell of Rumsfeld’s Iraq and it becomes just another order for the U.S. prison grunts to follow when the intelligence big-shots tell them to strip those Arab prisoners down and make them form a naked human pyramid.


America is a sick society, one that has no business telling anyone how to attain and practice modernity, democracy, and freedom. The repair of broken societies — and the failed states that spawn and reflect those societies — begins, like charity and empire, at home. Do I need to add that the US is the world’s leading incarceration state (two million prisoners and counting, nearly half of them African-American) and that sexual abuse (including endemic rape) is rampant behind the walls and bars of “Prison Nation’s” savagely racist and totalitarian “correctional” facilities?


It’s almost overkill to point out that televisions blaring the America’s toxic mass culture into the minds of a rather captive audience are ubiquitous throughout America’s mammoth prison-industrial complex. TV, it turns out, is wonderfully matched to the “correctional” authorities’ interrelated drives to (a) keep inmates passive and inert and (b) keep costs down – a topic that I address in greater detail in a recent posting (titled “Prison Nation/TV Nation”) on my new ZNet blog “Empire and Inequality” (which you can view off this top page!). According to Wall Street Journal writer Joseph T. Halinan’s book Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation (NY: Random House, 2001), “the bottom line drives nearly all decisions behind bars in this country, from the food the inmates eat to the type of work they do. Cost, in fact, is the reason wardens argue so adamantly for television behind bars: not because TV rehabilitates, but because, as one superintendent told me, television acts like ‘electronic Thorazine.’ It keeps the inmates tranquil, and a tranquil inmate is a cheap inmate. And so at [Kansas prison warden Jim] Zeller’s prison inmates get their choice of three dozen TV stations” (Hallinan, p.11).


Television helps America run its prisons on the cheap, reflecting neo-liberal cost-cutting imperatives that seem to explain much of what has gone wrong with US policy in Abu Grhaib and in Iraq as a whole.


The people of Iraq should hope that the occupation ends before Uncle Sam has to draft some of its many millions of prisoners and ex-prisoners into imperial service, encouraging them to carry into practice some of what they’ve learned from their guards both human and electronic.



Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, the Nation (2002, available online at www.cul-chicago.org, click on “Research Reports Available Online”)

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