[9 June 2004]
Conservatives have a rich (and r$ch) history of denying that oppression has any meaningful ramifications in the allocation of resources or in the choices people make. In the ‘80s, the urban city poor were dubbed the “underclass”, a stealthily eugenic term which simultaneously absolves most external factors and condemns a huge swatch of society to congenital inferiority. Similarly, the Right has heralded a utopian era where racism no longer exists, not because it’s true, but because it makes the effects of racism on minorities a matter of simple “choice”, and vitiates the need to redress inequality through affirmative action policies. From violence against women to homophobia, conservatives have consistently boiled away the nuance of every social problem to a problem of individuals and choices. In short, let’s cut rich people’s taxes and let everyone else rot in hell but pretend we’re making profound statements about human will.
It figures that it would take a little torture to have people on the Right suddenly get in touch with their inner sociologist. While some on the right have roundly condemned Abu Ghraib, a counter tide has been building momentum, with prominent conservatives voices pushing for revisionist morality. Rather than acknowledge the possibility that the Bush Administration has created an inquisition-worthy nexus of justifications for bending international law against many Iraqi citizens who, according to the International Red Cross, were probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, the Right find themselves employing a whole host of arguments similar to the environmental influence that they’ve spent decades trashing as so much blathering hippie excuse making.
Leave it to Anne Coulter to respond to tragedy with dementia since her intellectual m.o. has always been to push American political discourse to the level of a lynch mob with raw meat hanging from their mouths. Her take on Abu Ghraib? Why, it’s the fault of feminism and women in the military as she told Hannity and Colmes in MediaMatters.org, frothing that “in addition to not being able to carry even a medium-sized backpack, women are too vicious”. Of course, Coulter could easily be accused of confusing her own ego for the world at large, a mistake she makes more often than a parakeet tries making out with its reflection. I’m a feral bitch, isn’t everybody else too? By my account, war crimes and atrocities have existed longer than women have been in the military, but that’s just because I’m not politically psychotic and tend to like my grip on reality nice and firm.
Linda Chavez, Bush’s one-time Secretary of Labor nominee, adds a patina of complexity to the sisterly hatred in her Townhall piece ascribing the scandal to the evils of “sexual tension” brought about by the presence of women folk in the armed forces. Chavez’s major point, other than the general undermining of womankind, is that men performed the acts of abuse to impress the women and, in their absence, this would probably not have occurred.
Maybe she should talk to Rush Limbaugh, who painted the abuse as just the sort of joshing around horseplay that men will do if given the slightest slack in their leashes. It’s also hard to see how the elimination of women in a region where prostitutes cannot readily be accessed would decrease sexual tension. Does Chavez think it would be better if these boys resorted to the love that dare not ask or tell? What’s most psychologically telling is that Chavez automatically ascribes the gruesome abuse of Iraqis as merely a circumstantial deformation of the normal sex drive, ignoring completely the fact that the primary function of these tactics was to violently scrape away every shred of the prisoners’ humanity. This is like saying that rapists are just guys who haven’t had any luck with the girls.
Whenever I’m reading this stuff, I find it hard to believe that it’s possible for moderately sentient beings to buy such steaming heaps of bullshit. I do, however, readily believe that these arguments serve ideological purposes, strategic moves designed to capitalize on the collective vulnerability inherent in horrific events. Just as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell tried to blame 9-11 on gay people and civil libertarians, the Right has launched a counterattack, framing Abu Ghraib in terms of liberal sexual mores (e.g., gay people are no longer beaten with bricks) and feminism (e.g., women are no longer traded for sacks of gravel). Conservatives have tried at every turn to whore out the country’s existential fears since 9-11. Abu Ghraib is no exception.
By far the worst and most laughably tangential diversion I stumbled upon in the land of conservative fever dream was the idea that porn made them do it. Concerned Women for America posted an article shirking the Abu Ghraib abuse onto porno. I guess the idea is that our soldiers have spent too much time on the internet jacking off to rape porn, and then without any particular provocation decided to make their own amateur flicks using all the Iraqis that were lying around. If pornography automatically overrode people’s filters for determining right and wrong, given its billion dollar profit margins, our streets would be littered with sticky bondage gear and the mangled bodies of erotically snuffed commuters.
Is there one shred of evidence to suggest that the soldiers had to reference pornography in order to walk themselves through the process of committing acts of sexualized sadism? To the contrary, ample evidence has been daily materializing to support the accusation that this degradation was systematically designed from above to elicit (or fabricate by force) information from detainees by exploiting their cultural taboos. Unless of course, the argument ends up being that the President ordered the softening of the Geneva Conventions in order to be able to sate his private longings for the sexual domination of Arab men. I could buy that.
When they’re not busy mitigating personal responsibility by blaming Abu Ghraib on liberalism, conservatives have sought to simply belittle the extent of the atrocity by reframing such obviously disturbing images as jovial bits of Americana. Rush Limbaugh, sounding like someone should call his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, laughed off the beatings as simply “blowing off steam”, the kind of frivolity our troops engage in when they’ve beaten each other at too many Connect Four games. He rants: “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.” (CBSNews.com 5 June, 2004) Oliver North also added to the Delta Gamma Rapeu reasoning by calling the scandal, “the kind of thing you might find on any college campus nowadays” (MediaMatters.org)
We probably should have told the Iraqis that a little good ole fashioned American butt rape comes with the liberation territory. Am I the only one surprised that some representative of the Greek system has not come forward and said “Uh, dude, we don’t really rape each other, hit each other with bats, or allow pledges to be attacked by trained dogs.” Even if every Saturday kegger ends with a daisy chain of bleeding anuses, does that imply that this behavior is okay by virtue of being the sort of closed curtain games those repressed good ole boys like to play with one another? As more evidence of violence and even the possibly of murder comes to the fore, this argument sounds more and more unhinged from common decency unless North and Limbaugh will now claim that every once in awhile a few people die from alcohol poisoning at frat parties and therefore murder, too, is like a run-of-the-mill pledge week.
Maybe I should be more understanding of the environmental factors that have caused the Right to abandon their rhetoric of individual responsibility. They are, after all, influenced by the record of their President, which they must ceaselessly defend against reality, finding every possible excuse for his failures other than his character and judgment. As General Zinni, Richard Clarke, and Paul O’Neill fall away from the administration and reveal the gaping errors of decision making and ideology, the Right is forever forced into a mode of argumentation that contorts the obvious to ever distant abstractions, erasing the President from culpability while at the same time trying to prevent that disappearance of responsibility from begging the question of his purpose.
When I theorize about Abu Ghraib, two strands predominate. The first, and most obvious, is that this scandal was simply a policy decision made by those who believe that the ends justify the means and that every person in the Middle East can’t wait to drag an American corpse tied to a burning flag through their squalid city streets. The war on terror has often hinged on this thinly concealed rhetoric of contempt for the lives of Arabs, and Abu Ghraib simply extrapolates the belief that civilization is defined as whatever the hell we feel like doing to whomever we feel like doing it to. This is the ideology of fundamentalism, the delusion of the god-touched who, in White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez’ words are allowed to perceive international laws and treaties against torture as “quaint” because the Lord has given them carte blanche for their crusade. (MSN.com)
There’s also the obvious heart of darkness argument, one that shouldn’t be too hard to swallow for a country where many people still believe in the concept of original sin. War is an enormous psychic burden that we ask the poorest and least privileged among us to take on for our collective benefit. While I do not think these officers deserve the least bit of lenience for their actions, I’m jaded enough to find these occurrences wholly unsurprising, an intrinsic danger of war, exactly the reason that war should not lightly entered into.
Once you ask people to murder as efficiently and massively as they can, once someone has walked through a battle field fetid with the stench of charred flesh or seen the body parts of children (or rather, “collateral damage”, if you prefer) strewn about the ground, is it really that easy to make the transition back to the world of Walmart, Little League, and apple pie? We’re steeped in naivete about war because our televisions rarely show us what it’s actually like and the President fills our ears with numbing and banal rhetoric about the freedom-haters versus the scum fucks. They’re animals aren’t they?
Abu Ghraib is the kind of repulsive moment of inhumanity that should unite everyone in shuddering outrage. Even if evil is part of the human condition, that inner nature can only be held in check by ceaselessly beating back against it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sawyer040609/