There’s been a lot of blather about how the abuse at Abu Gharib is “un-American”.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Abuse of prisoners is as American as apple pie. Moreover it is a natural consequence of the effect the prisoner-guard relationship has on people.
It was clear even before Gen. Taguba’s report that torture – the kind of soft-shoe torture that leaves no physical marks – was an established and accepted operational tactic in post-9/11 prisons. This is not isolated behaviour; it started in Afghanistan, where aside from the thousands of people who died while being moved in shipping containers to prison, systemic abuse of prisoners was par for the course.
Even though the operational focus on military intelligence that gave rise to the specific abuses in the 9/11 prison system is novel, the abuse of prisoners by guards is not.
Aside from the inescapable fact that the prison system in America is deeply racist, in that a wildly disproportional number of minorities are incarcerated, abuse is also accepted and common practice in American prisons.
Furthermore, there seems to be very little that can be done to free prisons from abuse; abusive behaviour seems to be a natural consequence of the social dynamics of incarceration. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the canonical example of how dividing people arbitrarily into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ rapidly degrades into abusive behaviour.
There is a way out, however, and we have excellent examples to follow. When Finland became free from the Soviet Union, it inherited a Soviet-style prison system, with near-US levels of incarceration, harsh, long-term sentences, and high rates of recidivism. Now they have one of the lowest rates of incarceration, lower rates of recidivism, and crime hasn’t risen. While this matter is worth extensive study, an article in the guardian, and an excellent article in the NYTimes (sadly behind their paywall) both give an introduction.
While many Americans condone torture, it is widely held to be horrifyingly unethical, prohibited by UN convention, and ineffective in producing accurate intelligence. Furthermore, in Iraq, people have been living under a dictatorship for a long time; they know that narking on your colleague is the best way to show loyalty, so inventing something to tell your tormentors surely can’t be that far from the mind of someone being sexually humiliated.
Since Americans are willing to dehumanise, incarcerate, and abuse vast swaths of their own population, there is little hope that whatever ‘reforms’ are made in the supranational prison complex operated by the US military will resemble anything like the success of Finland. It is clear that what is revealed in Abu Gharib is not the exceptional behaviour of debased individuals, but a mere pustule on the festering canker that is the 5.6 million inmate strong American prison complex.
And still we retain the arrogance to give people freedom from the barrel of our gun.
Slate calls the prisoner experiment allusion insufficient. Actually, in reading the article, it mostly says that the Abu stuff is worse. Also, The New Republic has a good article on how them merikans were just serving up a heapin’ helpin’ of homemade prison abuse.