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SIGNS ON THE ROAD
TO ABU GHRAIB
by Sam Smith


Like a drunk driver staring at the dead bodies in the wreckage, like a violent husband looking down at the lifeless body of his wife, America now has to face its consequences. The denials, the excuses, the concealment no longer work; blood washes away even the cleverest rhetoric.

The media, in its role as defense counsel to the powerful, wants us to believe it was just an anomaly, something that shouldn't have happened, usually doesn't, and - after the proper bureaucratic response - won't again. But that's just more denial, excuse, concealment. It is not deviance that has been revealed, but culture, values, habit. Abu Ghraib is just as much a part of America's story as the TV series "Friends." It just has a different ending.

There were plenty of signs along the road to Abu Ghraib. Some were just hints, others flashed in large lighted letters from the overpass. But most of America ignored them on the way to becoming the psychotic parody of itself so brutally illustrated at Abu Ghraib.

What follows is a list of some of the things we might have noticed over the past two decades had we not been so enthralled by our delusions, distractions, and deviances. There is no attempt to weigh individual importance; they are all important for the reason Jane Jacobs notes in her new book: "A culture is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant. . . The collapse of one sustaining cultural institution enfeebles others, makes it more likely that others will give way . . . until finally the whole enfeebled, intractable contraption collapses." The dead branch precedes the dead trunk.

A good place to start, however, is with Margaret Thatcher, the woman who taught Ronald Reagan economics and helped launch in this country an unprecedented change in how we not only viewed money but everything else as well. I wrote about it in Why Bother?:

"Thatcher had a mean and narrow view of life; she didn't even accept the existence of community, declaring once that 'there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.' Thatcher wrapped herself in economic slogans that justified greed not only to accomplish economic ends but also to deal with gays and abortions and everything else she didn't like. In her paradigm, the free market and Victorian tyranny formed a civil union. By the time Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were through with the concept, they had created a gaping corporate exemption from common morality and decency. The market not only offered adequate justification for any act, it had replaced God as the highest source of law.

"Until the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era it would have been next to impossible to find a culture that survived for long believing that the unfettered, rapacious flow of money and goods was the core of human existence. Elsewhere, to be sure, commerce had looked to bottom lines, but these had included those established by church, community, government, and tradition."

And as the market was attacking conventional moral assumptions and cultural values, post-modernism was launching a second front.

Giovanna Borradori has called post-modernism a "definitive farewell" to modern reason. Pauline Marie Rosenau wrote: "Post-modernists recognize an infinite number of interpretations (meanings) of any text are possible because, for the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is undecipherable. . . Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word." .

The semiotician Marshall Blonsky observed, "Character and consistency were once the most highly regarded virtue to ascribe to either friend or foe. We all strove to be perceived as consistent and in character, no matter how many shattering experiences had changed our lives or how many persons inhabited our bodies. Today, for the first time in modern times, a split or multiple personality has ceased to be an eccentric malady and becomes indispensable."

Together, brutal capitalism and post-modernism firebombed principles of cooperation, decency, individual ethical responsibility, community, and social democracy. In their place came simple brute power manifesting itself in whatever guise seemed most useful at the time. With hubris rather than horror, America celebrated the collapse of its own consensus of conscience.

Well before September 11, I wrote: "The American establishment -- from corporate executive to media to politician - had reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own. There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries: the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, to the live bodies of dissidents being thrown out of military helicopters, to routine false imprisonment and baroque financial fraud. We are not there yet but are certainly moving in the same direction.

"In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, [and] at best practices only titular democracy. . . A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. . .

"In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. As Michael Douglas put it in Wall Street: 'Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.' Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in America's political and economic system. But a number of things have changed. As activist attorney George LaRoche points out, 'Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe 'old Joe' was a crook but he was also a 'pillar of the business community' or 'a member of the Lodge' or a 'good husband' and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification.'

"The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught."

In the late 1920s, the French essayist Julien Benda wrote The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda already saw a new class of intelligentsia that favored many of the same principles popular among today's leaders. Among them:

  • "The extolling of courage at the expense of other virtues. Placing the warrior, the aggressor, the "killer litigator," and the reckless higher in society than the wise, the just, and the sensible.
  • "The extolling of harshness and the scorn for human love -- pity, charity, benevolence"
  • "A cult of success . . the teaching which says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt."

But behind such enormous shifts in our common philosophy, more modest but important changes were taking place, things such as the misbegotten war on drugs which in many ways was the domestication of warfare, turning our guns from foreign enemies towards our own inner cities and more fatal to young black males than assignment to Vietnam had been to their parents. From the assault on constitutional rights, to the mistreatment of prisoners and increasing brutality, the war on drugs set the pattern with which the whole country would become familiar following September 11. The difference was that now the country's elite could not avoid what was happening. Liberals, shocked to learn of Abu Ghraib, had said not a mumbling word as their beloved Bill Clinton oversaw a doubling of the nation's prison population with all its attendant cruelties, many of which were precise precedents for what happened in Iraq.

We also instituted zero tolerance so students would learn early in life that in the new American state draconian punishment was only a mere slip-up away. And of what were we zero intolerant? Of students, the poor, those who prefer drugs less addictive or damaging than vodka or tobacco, the alienated, the unconventional, the mentally ill, and any other group that stood zero chance in such a culture.

We were not, however, totally without tolerance,. For example, we tolerated television and movies and computer games that taught young people how to kill and maim. We were tolerant of anyone with enough zeroes after the dollar sign in their gross income. We tolerated the destruction of our national, state and local sovereignty by an international gang of lawyers and their corporate clients. We tolerated an extraordinary and growing maldistribution of wealth. The destruction of the environment, the commercialization of community and sport. And so forth.

There was, in fact, no ethical principle that guided us as we oscillated between cruel suppression and self-serving laissé faire. In its ad hoc nature, its absurd results, and the uniform vulnerability of the targets, zero tolerance reminded one of nothing so much as southern justice before the civil rights movement or the unequal ministration of the law in a police state. In many ways zero tolerance was just another way of saying we had legalized prejudice and hate as well as arbitrary and capricious power.

The bully on the playground and the abusive husband provided prototypes for zero tolerance because, like the abusive and bullying politician of today, they likewise exercised great power without reason or justice against a victim too weak to resist.

And there were plenty of models. The Christian Science Monitor reported that "according to student rankings, says [Jaana Juvonen, a psychologist at the University of California], US schools are roughly on par with those in the Czech Republic as the least friendly in the Western world."

In more subtle changes, our media and intelligentsia rewrote the Constitution by claiming it was about balancing rights and responsibilities even though the latter word is never mentioned in the document. The alteration would be used to justify any assault on rights that came to mind. We jailed people for offenses that formerly would have been resulted in a fine. We handcuffed people for things that formerly would have only rated a summons. We hauled senior citizens to the station house for not having forgotten their drivers license.

Drivers licenses were used in other ways, including their revocation for consorting with prostitutes, operating a boat while drunk, violating the fish and game code, failing to pay child support, growing peyote, playing sound equipment on public transit, beating upon a vending or slot machine, dumping refuse on conservancy lands, or using a fake ID to purchase liquor.

Back in the 1990s, I compiled a list of some of the indications that our democracy was in deep trouble. Here are just some of the items listed under justice:

- Increased use of privatized prisons without adequate public supervision.

- Use of prison slave labor to serve corporate interests.

- Large increase in surprise raids on private homes.

- Mandatory sentencing that transfers discretionary judicial power from the courts to prosecutors.

- Use of racial profiling in searches and traffic stops.

- Great increase in use of paramilitary tactics and equipment by police departments.

- Greater use of abusive weaponry such as pepper spray, stun guns and gas.

- Greater use in prisons of torture and deprivation techniques such as lock-downs.

- Increased use of lock-ups and handcuffing for minor offenses such as traffic violations.

- Increased use of capital punishment.

- Increased use of military in traditionally civilian law enforcement roles.

- Increased use of "emergencies" to justify undemocratic actions.

Then in our politics, we elected as our two most recent presidents men whose personal manner included the lifelong abuse of power, but who received a pardon from half the nation - albeit a different half in each case - because politics now mattered infinitely more than decency or honor.

Those at the other end of the national pyramid did not fare so well. Those who merely dared to demonstrate their dissatisfaction through protest were jailed and mistreated in an unprecedented manner and those imprisoned for whatever reasons were increasingly brutalized, tortured, or left to rot. As Abu Graib was being exposed, the New York Times reported that the percentage of the imprisoned given life sentences had increased 83% in the past decade.

And how did we react to all this? Did Ted Koppel frown about it? Did Jim Lehrer express deep concern? Did CSPAN take us to prisons to show what was going on there while others were giving talks at the National Press Club? Did Harvard's Kennedy School of Government warn us about it?

No, instead we celebrated, fostered and impregnated our national character with brutality and barbaric behavior of all sorts. So powerful became our culture of violence, that a leading film practitioner of it was easily elected governor of our largest state despite his lack of political credentials. So indifferent did we become to our own constitution that we watched approvingly as police officers routinely ignored it on weekly cop shows.

Meanwhile, the military contributed more than its share as it brainwashed young men who couldn't otherwise survive under the rules of brutal capitalism, taught them how to kill, and then released them back to civilian society. One of them was named Timothy McVeigh.

Finally, when I think of all the changes that have occurred as we have moved towards the brutal, the bullying, and the barbaric in recent years, an image comes to mind so insignificant in every regard except as a metaphor. It used to be that when someone won something they smiled and cheered and waved their arms with delight. Today, with remarkable frequency, the victory is observed with raised tight fists beating hard into the wind and with a distorted grimace of triumph as though it were not a game that had been won or an honor received, but the death of a terrible foe. It is the look not of a hero but of a killer.