The Gist: American Justice Unbound
Of Boot Camps and Abu Ghraib
PIERRE TRISTAM/Candide's Notebooks, February 17, 2006
The world is again focused on pictures of American torture from Abu Ghraib prison, and again the attempts to rationalize the brutality are making the rounds of the know-nothing talk circuit: The pictures are old news. The pictures are needlessly inflammatory. The media are just as irresponsible for “rehashing” them as they were to pointedly insult another religion with obscene cartoons. And so on. ( Martini Republic , the blog, sums up one particularly vile such example, though by an unsurprising source.) The same voices that would never dream of putting a statute of limitations on the revelations of other people’s brutalities, from Saddam to Stalin to Pol-Pot to—for that matter—murderers in the civil rights era, rush to snuff out evidence of American brutality the moment it emerges.
The claim that Abu Ghraib is no Cambodia is the easiest bluff to hide behind. It’s true. Abu Ghraib is nowhere near those historic atrocities. But it doesn’t diminish the obvious: Numbers alone don’t an atrocity make, otherwise the My Lai massacre could have also been chalked up to just another incident of war, the sort of thing that happens when the reckless and the paranoid collide. We wouldn’t dream of making that sort of claim. But how different are the Abu Ghraib apologists’ latest claims? Their pretenses are not merely false. They flirt with the complicit: By seeking to repress the evidence, they become more than apologists of brutality. They become its enablers. The less a country owns up to its brutalities, the more it will indulge in them. Abu Ghraib is proof. I say Abu Ghraib: Of course Abu Ghraib is merely emblematic of the brutality that was systemic throughout the Iraqi and Afghani archipelago of American and American-controlled prisons. “Only” one individual was actually killed by torture at Abu Ghraib, while at least 25 others were found to have died in U.S. custody. That was as of March 2005. On Feb. 22nd, Human Rights First was scheduled to release a report pointing to 100 deaths in US custody.
What happened? A few internal investigations, a few cursory convictions of lowly nobodies, a lot of choreographed self-congratulations on Fox TV and other organs of White House Goebbelsmania, and that’s been it. By then the Pentagon had figured out that it was much easier, much cheaper, much more fun to “render” whatever roughable inmate it pleased to the nominal custody of Iraqi and Afghan wardens in those two countries, and lacking those, to the custody of friendly despots in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and—until they were found out—the Soviet Union’s former satellite wardens in Poland, Macedonia and Romania. So the focus on the resurfacing of the Abu Ghraid pictures is misleading in at least that sense: It keeps the attention away from the true archipelago of brutality that the American military has established (and is establishing) as permanently as it is building eternal bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And closer to home, it keeps the focus away from the domestic Abu Ghraib world of American prisons and jails, and their sister archipelago for juveniles—prisons where 2,200 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18, according to Human Rights Watch (which places the United States at the top of the world in its brutalization of children), and “boot camps” when young people are exiled by their families to be “straightened up,” only to suffer through the sort of treatment that last made news when it was used at Abu Ghraib. A 14-year-old just died at a boot camp run by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office here in my unglorious home state of Florida , where juvenile justice always hangs by the skin of a night stick.
Here’s how the Associated Press describes a tape of the bearing that led to the boy’s death: “Guards at a juvenile detention boot camp kneed and struck a boy who appeared to have gone limp while others restrained him on the day before he died, a videotape released Friday showed, sparking outrage from his parents. The boy, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, died the next day. A medical examiner has said he died from internal bleeding unrelated to the confrontation. The boy's mother […] said she walked out of her lawyer's office when the tape showed guards shoving her son up against a pole. […] On the tape, as many as nine guards can be seen restraining Anderson . Guards are seen to knee Anderson and wrestle him to the ground. On the ground, he was struck several times by one of the guards, either on his arm or the side of his torso, while he lay motionless.”
Boot camp and “discipline” enthusiasts will piggy back on the Abu Ghraib rhetoric and begin claiming that the tape should have never been released (one thing you can say about Florida government: the state constitution forbids it to operate in the dark, so most records are public). They might even put together a drive to ensure that this sort of record is kept secret in the future (the way they did to ensure that NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy pictures were kept secret). Anything but address the issue of the brutality itself, the mentality that allows this sort of thing to happen—a boot camp, parents willing to send their children to boot camp, a state government bankrolled enough to make these boot camps part of its juvenile “justice” system, and electorate that sees nothing much wrong with such camps as long as it brings a little discipline, a little control, to these “out-of-control” youths. Familiar words. Words used to justify the torturers of Abu Ghraib, words used to justify secret prisons, NSA spying. It’s the ends-justify-the-means approach to law and order, so rife and popular in the 1990s, joining hands with the ends-justify-the-means approach to the “global war on terror.”
Abu Ghraib is not such a distant episode after all. It was incubated in places like Florida and Arizona , where boot camps sprung up like kudzu, where policing as a mercenary activity is an accepted fact of life, where force is a norm of crime control. The approach relies on familiar, simplistic notions of law and order, on control by any means necessary, on solutions on the cheap—all hallmarks of the unpacifying American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan . Locations differ. The mentality is the same. We think the errors and scandals in Iraq are borne of the Iraqi quagmire, as if it were a unique pathology that has nothing at all to do with American intentions and wherewithal. We think wrong. The problem, easily summed up in two words (American hubris), was incubated in the United States . It found in George Bush its chief enthusiast and exporter. Then it went to work. How is the perpetrator supposed to learn anything when he still thinks he’s the law-giver, self-righteous and infallible? Abu Ghraib, tip of the iceberg indeed.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach, Fla., News-Journal, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org