Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Abu Ghraib: the Least of the Least 

by Grimshizzle
Do not shame or humiliate a man in public. Shaming a man will cause him and his family to be anti-Coalition.

The most important qualifier for all shame is for a third party to witness the act. If you must do something likely to cause shame, remove the person from the view of others.

Shame is given by placing hoods over a detainee’s head. Avoid this practice.

Placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies you are God. This is one of the worst things we can do.

(From a cultural sensitivity training pamphlet given to U.S. Marines last September as part of an effort to improve relations between soldiers and Iraqis; republished in the June 2004 issue of Harpers)

I realize I’m treading on volatile terrain here, or at least perhaps bringing up issues that people would just as soon put away, but the Abu Ghraib scandal has forced some moral and ethical issues that compel me to initiate a dialogue. I think I speak for the majority voice in the bloggernacle in expressing disgust at the abuses at Abu Ghraib, even if that disgust may be tempered for some by the general and inevitable ugliness of war. Sure, as some are quick to point out, the atrocities of the enemy sink far below those of the prison guards. But the Americans are supposed to be the good guys; a greater respect for humanity and human dignity is supposed to be what separates the good guys from the bad guys.

One picture to emerge from the scandal, the one of the hooded prisoner standing on a box with his fingers attached to wires (which, he was told, would deliver a shock if he fell off the box), has already become a symbol for the abuse. Despite the foul, immoral, sexually degrading (and in some cases sexually abusive) acts depicted in several of the other pictures, I found the picture of the prisoner on the box the most disturbing. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it wasn’t so much the actual story behind the photo, but the image’s formal properties: feet together on a pedestal, robe generously draped, arms away from the body, palms facing upward, head titled slightly. A few days later it hit me, as I accompanied the young men in my ward on a trip to one of the Church’s visitor’s centers to watch a movie. Before taking us into the theater, the supervising missionary ushered us into the small rotunda housing a replica of the Christus statue; a repulsive shiver ran up my spine when I realized the unconscious sacrilege I had been committing in reading the familiar posture of the statue in front of me into the grotesque form of the abuse photo. The latter contains nothing redeeming; it represents a compounding of crimes: the alleged crimes of the prisoner, and the documented crimes of his captors. Still, the superimposition of the two formally similar but contextually contrasting images indelibly suggested to me a familiar scripture—or, perhaps, its inversion. Usually, when we read of Jesus talking about the “least of these,” we think of seeing Him in the face of the poor and needy to whom we render service. Are we compelled likewise to see Him in our enemies, even those who may have blood on their hands--and to see self-indulgent malice against them as malice against Him? In the minds of the Arab world, the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were committing the ultimate sacrilege: playing God. Not to buy wholesale into the Crusader mentality that has sometimes characterized this administration, but to what extent are we compelled, as the good guys, to do the opposite: what is our obligation to the least of the “least of these”--our enemies?

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