It took grossly repulsive images of US army brutalities on helpless detainees flashed accusatively in the global media for the Pentagon to admit that 37 prisoners have been killed in American custody since August 2002 in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like every official statistic, this figure too is based on conservatism and denial. Can the Defense Department also give an official estimate of the number of individuals tortured so that we can multiply it several folds to arrive at the true extent of cruel and degrading treatment? Michael Moore’s new documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 carries footage of American soldiers mercilessly raining blows on elderly Iraqis outside prisons. So what if Abu Ghraib jail has finally been shut down? Iraq’s streets, souks and homes continue to be open Abu Ghraibs. The punitive nature of this occupation is standing out as a sore thumb now for even the most disbelieving watcher.
Shockingly, a gigantic cocoon of defensive exceptionalism still hovers like a black cloud over the land that apparently God blessed. In Fort Ashby, West Virginia, the hometown of Lynndie England, the Stars and Stripes adorn every porch despite the shameful behaviour of this 21-year-old female reservist in Abu Ghraib. Lynndie’s God-fearing patriotic small town neighbours have defended her as a “model soldier” of whom everyone continues to be “proud.” Nondescript places like Fort Ashby send truckloads of youth into the US army. None of them has budged one inch from the homily that Iraq has been ‘liberated’ from a hateful dictator. None of them felt conscientious to condemn or soul search what it means to be American with guns, boots and arrogance in distant fiefdoms.
I happened to be in New York during the high-intensity war in Iraq last year. Brooklyn avenues sported blue and white ribbons hugging tree trunks in patterned rows. The more zealous left bouquets on pavement corners in strange animistic fashion. I wondered if Americans miraculously discovered the magic of nature worship and totems. Imagine the disappointment when someone glared back incredulously and said, “Don’t you know? They’re for supporting our troops in (Sic) eyerack.” Until and even after George W Bush declared victory over Iraq, the ‘support our troops’ chorus kept rising like a high tide. I found to my dismay that the most reasonable analytical Americans withdrew from criticism when it came to ‘our troops.’ Across the US, no institution conjures up as emotional a surge as the army. The militancy behind this blind attachment to sons and daughters of the soil who marshall the frontiers of the world defending ‘freedom’ is unnerving.
The mindset of a programmed American soldier itself augurs for deeper understanding because it is an extension of the unquestioning faith the average American citizen places in the ‘boys’ and ‘girls.’ A very telling insight into US army attitudes comes from the in-depth documentary on the 1993 misadventure in Somalia, Black Hawk Down. One of the Americans involved in the street fighting that killed hundreds of innocent Africans described the epiphanic moment when the US army helicopter started spinning to a fall: “I saw the Black Hawk coming down…and said…man, this is not happening to us. We’re Americans!” (Emphasis original) Armed teenage bands loyal to warlord Mohammad Farrah Aideed had brought down a symbol of American air dominance and shattered the myth of invincibility at least for that soldier. Essentially, the same myths of invincibility, exceptionalism and ‘My Country Always Right’ are reflected in the muted and hypocritical reaction across the US to the prison abuses scandal today.
Command responsibility must be established in the crimes against humanity that are being committed in Iraq. As it turns out, Lynndie England and her fellow sodiers’ macabre capers in Abu Ghraib were at the express personal commands of Donald Rumsfeld. According to New Yorker magazine, Rumsfeld and Joint Chief of Staff Richard Meyers ordered a top-secret plan to employ unconventional methods to interrogate and extract information from ‘insurgents’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a highly classified Special Access programme (SAP) that gave advance approval to kill, capture or interrogate ‘high value targets.’ As is typical of inter-organisation tussles in the US administration, the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s "long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the CIA." Known to insiders by several code words including Copper Green, the heinous project encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners in an effort to disgorge hard intelligence about the widening insurgencies.
All this when the US is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture as well as the Geneva Conventions! Maybe it is really futile to cite international treaties and measure the sincerity of any government, not just of the US, in enforcing and implementing them. But the US is answerable precisely since it advertises its civilising mission with supreme fanfare. How many times have George W Bush and Tony Blair used the blatantly racist phrase ‘civilised nations and peoples’ to describe themselves in the last three years? The war on Iraq was supposed to be a struggle against ‘evil’, ‘oppression’ and ‘barbarism’ (once the Weapons of Mass Destruction lie fell through). Are the actions committed by Lynndie England’s likes civilised or barbaric? What makes the US a ‘civilised nation’ while Saddam’s Iraq wasn’t?
Pause to think about the 2 million-plus inmates languishing in domestic American prisons. The same racist and sexist logic that underlay the horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq has existed in ‘civilised’ America for decades. The US prison industrial complex does not stand the test of universal norms of decency, civilisation and human rights. Abu Ghraib under American soldiers is an externalisation of the humiliating conditions that prevail in a typical Texas state prison. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "This office has been involved in cases in which prisoners have been raped by guards and humiliated but we don't talk about it much in America and we certainly don't hear the President expressing outrage.” American judges have condemned sadistic and malicious violence, a common trait across US prisons, when the truth occasionally escaped conspiratorial walls to reach a courtroom. If you want a modern day example of Dostoyevsky’s Dead House, look no further than an American prison. Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan happen to be far flung.
With such a grim reality, what is one to make of Madeleine Albright’s famous exceptionalist quote, “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall”? Hubris lubricated by a macho attitude that Americans can never be wrong has caused incalculable damage to the practice of human rights worldwide. The scale of violations committed in Afghanistan and Iraq deserves prosecution in the International Criminal Court, but even there the exceptionalist Americans have inserted various exceptions and limits upon proceedings against American soldiers and their superiors.Unless American society introspects its own innards and rises to the call of conscience, no justice can accrue to the victims in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the US’ own gaols. Revisiting Graham Greene’s epic 1956 novel The Quiet American for answers is worth the effort. The protagonist, a CIA agent, is loaded with smugness about his own inherent goodness and his country’s innocence vis-à-vis the French in Vietnam. Greene warned, “Innocence is a kind of insanity.” Insanity took over Americans in the sixties and the rest is history. As a first step toward rehabilitating survivors, the insanity of exceptionalism must be expelled from the American mind.
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