A friend of mine was discussing Abu Ghraib with his Egyptian father, who had originally supported the war. Referring to the photo of the female U.S. soldier with a leash around a prostrate Iraqi, he asked his Dad, “What is the message of that photo? It’s that the Iraqi is a dog.”
His father replied, “No. The message is that he’s MY dog.”
The tortures at Abu Ghraib have exposed to the world the utter moral bankruptcy of Bush’s war. Far from being fought on behalf of Iraqi democracy, it is a war for U.S. supremacy in which racist dehumanization and brutalization of Arabs and Muslims play an absolutely central role.
Since September 11 the White House has framed its “war on terrorism” in thinly veiled racial and religious terms: as a crusade of the “civilized” against the “uncivilized.” This unsavory propaganda campaign has built upon a more than decade-long effort by the government and the media to demonize Arabs and Muslims as “bloodthirsty terrorists.”
This depiction harkens back to the portrayal of Native Americans as savages out to scalp the good white settlers who only wanted to bring light to their dark existence–and, incidentally, to destroy their way of life and occupy their land. The sexual humiliation of Iraqis recalls the daily rape of black slaves. And the smiling faces of the Abu Ghraib perpetrators and the trophy photos they took remind us of the images of white people who gathered to enjoy the lynching of black people in the South.
To justify its war of choice, the White House added to this racist imagery the myth that the chief Arab terrorist was Saddam Hussein and that he was bent on attacking us with Weapons of Mass Destruction. To this day the racial ignorance so common in our country has enabled many Americans to hang on to the Bush fable that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks. The twisted logic is that an Arab is a Palestinian is a Muslim is a Terrorist is an Iraqi. What’s the difference? They all must be destroyed before they destroy us first!
At the same time Washington made extraordinary efforts to conceal the horrors of war. Fearing that its racialized propaganda might not be enough to convince the gentle public to send its sons and daughters off to kill or be killed for the greater glory of the military and Big Oil, it sought to conceal all deaths and present the Iraq war as a sort of Boy Scout outing for the good of civilization. The “war on terrorism” in Iraq became the 21st century version of the White Man’s Burden.
Washington bought up all rights to satellite photographs and otherwise ensured that no horrific battlefield scenes would ever disturb the public’s less than watchful eyes. Similarly it ended the practice of counting the dead. Instead, the president continually assured us that his “high tech weaponry” only struck “the really bad guys.”
The White House campaign to sanitize the war was so successful that the fact that more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in this “noble mission” is virtually a state secret. It even banned the photographing of the caskets of dead U.S. soldiers. The president has avoided attending their funerals lest the public be reminded that war actually involves the horrible death of human beings.
However, it is not enough to lay responsibility for the tortures at Abu Ghraib and the murderous Iraq war at the doorstep of the White House, its rightwing ideologues or its corporate cronies. We must also address the self-interested racist gullibility that makes the U.S. public susceptible to war mongering. Much of that public has shown that it will let its attachment to an SUV lifestyle and false patriotism lead it to support leaders who destroy the lives and steal the resources of people who can be dismissed as racial inferiors–at home as well as abroad.
MORAL AWAKENING NEEDED
Indeed, the random jailing of more than 15,000 Iraqis reminds us that more black men in the U.S. are incarcerated than have graduated from college. Torture was practiced in U.S. prisons long before Abu Ghraib.
The mass round up of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. since September 11 runs parallel to the internment of Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens” during WWII. And the self-serving U.S. denunciation of “foreign terrorists” in Iraq mirrors the arrogance of “English Only” Anglos calling for a crackdown on “illegal immigrants” while occupying land stolen from Mexico in an earlier U.S. “war of liberation.”
Abu Ghraib has exploded the myth that Bush’s war was a moral, high tech war in which only terrorists suffered. It has finally brought the brutal treatment of Arabs and Muslims as subhumans out into such harsh light that even the sleepy U.S. public snapped to attention.
But condemnation of Abu Ghraib cannot be the end. It must instead be the beginning of a profound moral awakening in this land that will lead us not only to end this war, but to open our minds and hearts to correct the manifold racist lies and injustices that continue to deform the daily fabric of U.S. life from its foreign policy to its elections to its classrooms to its prison cells.
As the great African American poet Langston Hughes once declared, “America never was America to me. But it must be!”
*Bob Wing is managing editor of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras and a co-chair of United for Peace and Justice (http://www.unitedforpeace.org), a national antiwar coalition of more than 800 organizations. A special issue of War Times will further discuss the race and gender issues embedded in the Iraq war.