The last few weeks were deeply disturbing for most Americans. Most were shocked by the pictures out of Abu Ghraib, pictures of scenes that are usually viewed only in pornographic movies. These pictures raised the question for many as to how American soldiers could commit such acts, while some questioned whether these soldiers are, indeed, a force for good in that country. In the ensuing frenzy, it has become clear that abuse of Iraqi prisoners goes well beyond what is depicted in those photos, is long-standing, and has been pointed out to US officials by numerous individuals and human rights organizations. While launching secret investigations of a few individuals, these officials did little to mitigate the overall climate of abuse.
As we were reeling from the impact of these photos, word came of the brutal execution by beheading of American businessman and hostage Nic Berg. Images of beheading, previously witnessed only by those choosing to view the most violent of horror movies, has entered our everyday world of work and family and spring flowers.
In response to these appalling events, some of us turn off the news, blot out the horror, and return to our daily lives. Others demand retribution, talk of the evils of Islamic fundamentalists, or of Islam itself, and of the need to eradicate this evil, down to the last Iraqi. This urge for retribution is a natural human characteristic, albeit especially strong in both American and Arabic cultures. “An eye for an eye” the Old Testament teaches. Of course, those who perpetrated this beheading also claimed the mantle of retribution, for the abuses in Abu Ghraib in their case. An eye for an eye can continue in a persistently escalating cycle of violence and horror.
While seeking out and punishing those few who committed this horrendous crime is a reasonable response, it in no way can justify the
Reflection requires us to look within ourselves, to ground our thoughts in an awareness of the potential for rage and violence that lurks within each of us. If the human race learned anything in the 20th century, it was that violence and “evil” are not characteristics only of those among us who perform loathsome acts, but that most, if not all, of us are capable, given the right circumstances, of committing acts of which we would be ashamed. The Holocaust taught us this.
Reflection also requires us to contemplate the other, the Iraqis. A just approach to
Three recent polls of Iraqis give a glimpse of what they want. A poll by USA Today and CNN, completed in early April — before that month’s massive uprising and this month’s prison abuse scandal — found that 56% of Iraqis wanted American troops to leave immediately, whatever the dangers. Fifty-eight percent felt that US troops had behaved either “fairly badly” or “very badly.” And 67% felt that American troops were not trying at all “to keep ordinary Iraqis from being killed or wounded during exchanges of gunfire.” These results included the generally pro-American Kurdish areas; in the non-Kurdish areas, people were even more anti-occupation. Remember, these results reflect Iraqi opinion before the past tumultuous month in which hundreds of civilians were killed in the siege of Falluja, and in which the Red Cross, the former Iraqi Human Rights Minister, and numerous others revealed they had been complaining of American brutality toward prisoners for many months, only to be met with silence.
Another poll conducted by the
So, Iraqis have spoken. They have told us what they want. If democracy means anything, it means listening to the will of the overwhelming majority. They want us to leave their country. They want us to let Iraqis decide their own future, with whatever international help they choose.
So at this time of horror, we can choose the path of retribution, acting tough and escalating our struggle with the major factions of Iraqi society wanting an end to occupation and the post-occupation
Stephen Soldz ([email protected]) is a psychoanalyst and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is also a founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice, and maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page.