ON THE ROAD
TO ABU GHRAIB
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
"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 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
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
"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
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
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
- 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.