Atrocities in Plain Sight

Andrew Sullivan on Abu Ghraib:

“I’m not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it’s worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ”heroic” protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.”

I had missed this essay, originally published on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I have long been a proponent of a take similar to Sullivan’s about how the rhetoric about the war and the duplicitous shaping — from the top — of the American attitide about Iraqis, terrorists, and other poorly differentiated spooks created a culture in which these atrocities could happen. I differ with Sullivan on one account, which is his assertion that those who “unwittingly made this torture possible” were not as guilty as those who inflicted it. First of all, it is hard for me to see how it was “unwitting.” And secondly, decisions from the president and the upper echelon of his administration henchmen not only “made the torture possible” but essentially mandated it. Early in the essay, Sullivan is unsure whether to take solace in the fact that the torture occurred in a free society where the chilling evidence of it was able to come to light.

“Whatever happened was exposed in a free society; the military itself began the first inquiries. You can now read, in these pages, previously secret memorandums from sources as high as the attorney general all the way down to prisoner testimony to the International Committee of the Red Cross. I confess to finding this transparency both comforting and chilling, like the photographs that kick-started the public’s awareness of the affair. Comforting because only a country that is still free would allow such airing of blood-soaked laundry. Chilling because the crimes committed strike so deeply at the core of what a free country is supposed to mean. The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a sign of both freedom’s endurance in America and also, in certain dark corners, its demise.”

I am afraid that the pieties about the persistence of freedom in America are gross self-deception. Free expression and inquiry are the merest, illusory, window-dressing on a society that permits such atrocity as a matter of policy, fails to make a meaningful inquiry into or condemnation of the abuses, and reelects those responsible, enabling them to claim a ‘mandate’ for business as usual. What did the American people do other than stand by and shake their heads in the face of the war crimes committed in their name, and allow ourselves to be sated by the punishment of some sacrificial lambs? The failure to make the atrocities, and the similar demonization of those we hold prisoner in Guantanamo, Afghanistan (and God knows what other places around the world we have not even heard of), a core campaign issue was scandalous. The moral failures involved must be kept in the forefront of American consciousness if those who act in our name are to be prevented from permitting and encouraging further atrocities.