Despite the filthy hood covering his face, the soiled cape barely concealing his naked body, and the exhaustion evident from the tilt of his head, the Iraqi prisoner in this now iconic photograph radiates grace, dignity, and humanity — qualities that were lost on his tormentors. In his silence as an Iraqi subjected to the cruelties of Saddam Hussein, the privations of the UN sanctions regime, the passivity of Arab leaders, and now the depravities of American soldiers, echoes our shame. Or it should. The acts depicted in the now infamous Iraqi prison photos fall into a class of international offenses for which no one can or should enjoy impunity: torture.
With glee, ingenuity, and apparent permission from their superiors, young American men and women (some of whom claim they never heard of the Geneva Conventions), tortured dozens of Iraqis in shameful and pornographic ways for several months in Abu Ghraib prison. These digital depictions of grave violations of the Geneva Convention and the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Degrading or Inhuman Treatment or Punishment are evidence of war crimes.
And these bright-eyed young Americans are war criminals. They did not achieve such infamy overnight or on their own, however. Rather, just like the Americans they represent back home in Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Texas, they gradually lost their bearings as a result of a sustained media- and policy-induced trance asserting that Americans and the United States constitute a special class of humanity: privileged, above the law, stronger, better, and more deserving than others.
From the evident joy they experienced while violating Iraqis arrested and imprisoned in the murky legal twilight-zone of Iraq/Guantanamo/Afghanistan spawned by the “War on Terror,” it is clear that they have not really violated international humanitarian law: These young Americans, and their superiors, do not consider Iraqis to be human beings. From the photos, it seems Americans have mistaken Iraqis for dogs.
Iraqis are to be disciplined, herded, leashed, brought to heel, beaten and otherwise acted upon by their masters. Iraq and Iraqis are to be invaded, sanctioned, bombed, starved, beseiged, governed, administered, handed over, taught a lesson, de-Ba’athified, cleansed, and even “democratized.” But Iraqis never get to stand on two feet and be agents of their own individual or collective will.
Only the US and UK military personnel, with the crucial aid of private (and possibly unaccountable) contractors, are the actors, the sole agents of discipline, governance, transformation, and decisionmaking. No other parties need worry their heads about what goes on inside the nebulous borders of the new quasi-sovereign Iraq. The UN, the EU, and the World Bank, along with dozens of non-governmental and private voluntary organizations and countless journalists and activists, can opine, declaim, suggest, and warn all they want, but only the “coalition” may act.
With such privileges and powers, one would think, come duties and obligations.
Not so. Here we see the lethal elegance of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s new “lean, mean, US armed forces.” Not only is this new fighting machine light on personnel, it is also unencumbered by respect for the laws and usages of war. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Geneva Conventions (1949), the UN Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Degrading or Inhuman Treatment or Punishment (1984), and international customary law all clearly and unequivocally criminalize torture. It is a crime that attaches universal jurisdiction, i.e., extraterritorial prosecution and judicial processes. Torture is a profoundly serious offence that is not allowed at any time for any reason. Period.
According to the US, however, these firm guidelines are for other, lesser countries. The US is different: a nation apart, just like its close ally, Israel. With Rumsfeld’s off-hand dismissal of the gravity of these photographs and all that they convey and imply about command culture in the US armed forces, and with the arrival of Gen. Miller, fresh from Guantanamo, to oversee the internal workings of Abu Ghraib prison, the US has effectively declared itself beyond the reach of international law.
This should not surprise anyone who has watched as the US: a) pulled out of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court; b) attempted to undermine other states’ support for the court; and c) demonized attempts to realize international justice in national courts, going so far as to strong-arm the Belgian government into gutting its progressive universal jurisdiction (or “anti-atrocity”) legislation a year ago.
Now that we all know just what has been going on in Abu Ghraib prison, it is clear why the US is so keen to guarantee its immunity from international humanitarian law. It wants, like that frightening, wiry, young woman soldier, to make the world its “bitch.” With a world of objects, who can be a subject — of law or concern or solidarity?
But in a world of educated, on-line, savvy news consumers, how does the US get away with being such a badly behaved top dog?
The Bush administration does not invoke secular notions of law, accountability, and governance to defend its impunity and exceptional status, but rather, claims something akin to divine right. We are to believe that the blood shed of US citizens on September 11th 2001 has authorized our sacred mission to ride roughshod over others’ rights and to dismiss the multilateral frameworks of international governance, peacekeeping, humanitarian law, and mediation painstakingly built up through joint processes over the last 50 years. Israel makes the same claims, implicitly or explicitly, about the Holocaust, invoking Nazi horrors to excuse nearly a half century of clear and systematic violations of International Humanitarian Law, including torture.
Though many Israelis and Americans might find arguments based on notions of exceptionalism and manifest destiny emotionally compelling and morally satisfying, they represent a dangerous conception of accountability that the world can ill afford. This US-Israeli claim of being above the law is premised upon a belief that Israelis and Americans are more human than others, more worthy or deserving than others, to enjoy basic rights, dignity, and security.
Viewing recent events and deciphering the conceptual underpinnings of Israeli and US military actions in the West Bank, Gaza, Falluja, and Abu Ghraib prison, as well as Guantanamo, it is hard not to conclude that US and Israeli decision makers view themselves as “ubermenschen,” ultra-humans, while casting Arabs and Muslims in the complementary, contrasting role of semi- or quasi-human creatures whose rights, dignity, lives, health, future, wealth, security we can steal, break or violate at will without any compunctions. We can even have a good laugh while violating others — and the laws meant to protect us all.
For the Ariel Sharons and the Donald Rumsfelds of our world, no human rights have, technically speaking, been violated in Iraq or Palestine. No grave breaches of International Humanitarian Law have been committed, since no actual humans have been harmed. Iraqis and Palestinians are faceless masses of evildoers, not real people like us.
So slap, crack, smash and pummel away, snap some more prison-porn pix for the guys and gals back home at the local watering hole, and keep smiling, troops: As long as George Bush, Jr., Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld hold the leashes (not the reins) of power in Washington, rest assured that you will remain above the reach of secular and international law. With God on your side.
We have met the evildoers, and they are us.
Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq. She teaches social anthropology in British Columbia, Canada.