Viewpoint: The Real Shame of Abu Ghraib

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“Shoot me here,” said an Abu Ghraib prisoner pointing to the space between his eyes, “but don’t do this to us.” To Americans this response is puzzling. Iraqis suffered many horrible, mutilating tortures under Saddam Hussein. How is torture under American forces worse?

To understand why people of the Middle East responded to Abu Ghraib with horror, one needs to recall the legacies of state violence in this region over the centuries. In the beginning, Muslim states did not carry forward many of the worst tortures (including crucifixion) of the Persian and Roman empires they replaced. They did introduce tortures of their own, from the amputation of limbs to the common beating of the soles of the feet, the falaka, that are cruel by our standards. But Muslim societies were guided by ideals and values that Westerners can recognize and which still animate penal reform today. A look at the evolution in the region of both torture and attitudes about it:


Ancient Tortures. For the West, crucifixion is a religious symbol, but in the Middle East, this was a real punishment that cast a long shadow. Greek historians tell us that the Persians invented crucifixion around 2500 years ago, but other empires soon adopted it. The ancients regarded this as the worst of executions. Crucifixions displayed victims naked in public without honor. They subjected victims to the vengeful feelings of a crowd, allowing them to take pleasure in pain and breach the bonds of civility. They extended suffering for days. They left victims as food for wild beasts and birds, denying them a proper burial. Crucifixion was the practice of savages and tyrants who did not respect the law.

The Muslim world rejected this practice of Romans and Persians. Consider for example this story of the early history of Islam. In battle, Ali, Mohamad’s son in law, was about to deliver the death blow to an idolater, Talha. At that moment, Talha’s lower garment fell away and exposed his genitals. Ali averted his face, and spared the man. Mohammad asked him why, and Ali replied the man was nude and asked that the life be spared.

This parable illustrates not only the qualities of an ethical soldier, but also lays out some of the qualities of humane violence. Humane violence expresses what is just, not what serves one’s interests. It encourages maturity, civility and honor. It limits pain to what the law requires. It does not add humiliation to suffering, nakedness to pain. And if life must be taken, one returns the body swiftly to families for the proper burial rituals.

The Americans at Abu Ghraib violated this understanding. The soldiers exposed the men publicly and added humiliation to injury. They fostered inhuman feelings, both sexual and violent, that broke the bonds of basic human society. They wrapped the bodies of the dead in plastic and ice and left them exposed and photographed. They applied pain in excess of what was permitted or necessary for their duties. They acted in the manner of ancient tyrants.

Colonial Tortures. While Muslim torturers applied pain as custom and religion required, colonial torturers showed no such restraint. French police in Algeria argued that the lives of Algerians were so hard that just roughing them up as like criminals were in Paris, the old passage à tabac, didn’t work. They advocated using water torture and electroshock. These tortures gripped the consciousness of prisoners from the inside. They were interested in creating the most painful experience possible.

Colonial states not only resorted to physical torture, but also to practices that deliberately violated the old understanding of humane violence. During the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859), for example, British troops resorted to the extraordinary practice of strapping rebels to canons and blowing cannonballs through their chests. This was done because Muslim bodies had to be buried intact for their souls to enter into paradise. By blowing them to smithereens, this method of execution aimed to horrify and deter survivors.

“Cultural torture” was the invention of people on the outside of societies. It is not born out of indifference or ignorance. On the contrary, colonial states showed a calculated sensitivity to what offended local values in the practice of violence.

When Lyndie England explained that she and her fellow soldiers were “following orders” by posing in those infamous photos for “psy-ops” (psychological operations), she touched on a colonial memory. She suggested that all that was done at Abu Ghraib was informed by what Iraqis would find most damaging to their pride and ego. People can forgive what is done out of ignorance, but not what is done out of maliciousness.

Modern Tortures. But there was something even more insidious about what was done at Abu Ghraib. Whether this violence was torture or not, it left few physical marks — it was stealthy violence. In the absence of the photographs, trophies taken illicitly by soldiers, we would not know fully what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The rise of stealth torture is a new phenomenon. In the last few decades, states have become increasingly sensitive to bad publicity and human rights monitors. These affect legitimacy and foreign aid. So police and soldiers have resorted to stealthier techniques: electroshock, torture by water and ice, tying victims in agonizing postures, sonic devices and drugs. Modern torturers know how to beat suspects senseless without leaving marks.

These tortures have appeared more often in the wars of democracies than in dictatorships, for here public monitoring was greater. Dictators like Saddam Hussein didn’t use them much. Indeed, they may have needed to leave scarred bodies in every public square as evidence of their power. That very lack of scarring in some ways is even worse. A UN psychologist who works with victims of stealth torture observes that the feelings of shame, remorse and guilt “would not have been experienced had the subjects been physically scarred.” Physical scars can be shown without shame; they win sympathy and recognition from families and communities. But the photographs at Abu Ghraib put the survivors in a vicious bind. What is necessary proof of modern stealthy violence also revives painful colonial memories and ancient humiliations. No wonder a bullet in the head is more preferable.



Darius Rejali is a nationally recognized expert on the causes and consequences of torture, the author of Torture and Democracy (forthcoming Princeton) and a 2003 Carnegie Scholar. He is a Professor of Political Science at Reed College.