When is Prisoner Abuse Racial Violence
When is Prisoner Abuse Racial Violence
My stomach contracts and I feel a deep chill in every pore of my Brown skin when I see the prisoner abuse photos. I know that this is about racism. So why are so many publicly reluctant to say so? Or is it that we can't get our words into print? Only a few people have noted that the photos remind them of prison abuse and police brutality of Black and Brown men in North America, and of American military and covert operations in Latin America, the Caribbean, Vietnam and elsewhere. Most of these writers are non-Western with the notable exception of Washington Post staff writer Phillip Kennicott. Not mincing words, Kennicott maintains that "these pictures are pictures of colonial behavior, the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished." Using the words of Aime Cesaire, Kennicott actually names the abuse "race hatred." The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief declares that the abuse reflects the "deep racism underlying the occupiers' attitudes to Arabs, Muslims and the third world generally." John Pilger calls it "modern imperial racism. " Recalling Vietnam, and the way that the My Lai massacre is remembered only as a rare incident of exceptional violence, Pilger predicts that prisoner abuse in Iraq will come to be seen the same way, as exceptional and unconnected to the national project of dominating racially inferior peoples. Two weeks into the scandal, the exceptional violence argument rules the day and the word racism is not even uttered as a possible contributing factor.
While racism is not being explicitly named, outrage and condemnation are not lacking. Although CNN recently asked its viewers if they had had enough of the pictures, the Western world continues to be rocked by the images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. When the photos show a young American woman leading an Iraqi man on a leash, and both male and female soldiers grinning for the camera as they display a pyramid of naked Iraqi men forced to simulate sodomy, the conclusion that humiliation and torture of the most terrible kind had taken place is inescapable. Few try to defend the abuse although there is the occasional columnist, such as Andrew Coyne for the National Post, who insists (on the CBC's program Counterspin) that the abuse is isolated and that 400 photos do not constitute proof otherwise. The National Post notwithstanding, even CNN has begun to use the word "systemic" as more photos and videotapes emerge.
The 'Anyone Can Torture' Arguments
But "systemic" does not mean racist. Systemic doesn't explain the grins of the torturers. The photos are "hard to explain." Struggling to keep the West on high moral ground, journalists spin out articles daily reminding us that anyone can become a torturer under the right circumstances. Racial abuse disappears into the generic. Torture is as "American as apple pie," writes Olivia Ward, but not, as we might think because of American's long racist history but because this is what militaries do. A seemingly endless list of psychologists attest that "under certain circumstances almost anyone has the capacity to commit the atrocities seen in the photos," especially when faced with a terrible enemy.
The bid to turn the grins into something we can live with requires a script of exceptionally bad soldiers or leaders, or, best of all, exceptionally bad (war-like) conditions. In its Special Report "How Did it Come to This? Time magazine's Canadian edition manages to incorporate nearly all of the 'exceptional' arguments into one article. The reservists had no training for their prison guard jobs, discipline and morale flagged, the prison was under constant mortar raids, the detainees kept flooding in, and so on. The abuse merely represents a legitimate but slightly over-zealous interrogations policy. Prisoners had to be made to talk (war and Arabs are brutal) and what better "psychological tool" than to culturally humiliate them. Buying completely the U.S. army line that sexual humiliation, especially by women is the best way to degrade Arabs, the media, long accustomed to the orientalist line that they are simply not like us, never stops to ask if these practices would be equally degrading to any population on earth, and perhaps especially to White Americans who seldom experience anything of the kind.
The will to deny that a specifically racial encounter is taking place in Iraq is a strong one. Gratefully, everyone mouths the truth offered in the media: war pushes people to become torturers. If it is war, terrible conditions, poorly trained soldiers, an interrogations policy gone awry, and most of all a cunning enemy among whom are many terrorists, then all is forgiven. We understand. Enough said. Just be careful not to cross the line next time.
Pleased with ourselves that at least we didn't go to war in Iraq, many Canadians cannot completely buy the arguments about soldiers pushed to the brink to do terrible things. Uneasily, we recognize the grinning soldiers and the tortured bodies from the Somalia Affair, when Canadian soldiers did the same thing. But we know how to push these doubts away. Having spent the last four years researching and writing a book about the Somalia Affair, the euphemisms and arguments about exceptional conditions and poorly trained men are deeply familiar to me. Confronted with our own photos, we made prolific use of the line about "a few bad apples" - both rank and file and military leaders. We said that the heat and the dust, and most of all the hordes of ungrateful rock-throwing Somalis made the men lose their self-restraint. Insisting that the mission was peacemaking and not peacekeeping, we maintained that such things happen in war-like conditions. In the end, we decided that the real violence was that we were duped as a nation, betrayed by a few undisciplined men who unfairly tarnished our stellar reputation as peacekeepers to the world.
Canadians never once asked what soldiers from affluent, white, Western countries thought they were doing in Africa and why some resorted to torture and humiliation to 'help' the natives, while why so many watched and condoned what was going on. The climate and the ungrateful natives told us all we needed to know. What white militaries (and even Brown and Black soldiers are drawn in) think they are doing in the Third World today is the key to understanding Iraqi prisoner abuse. Men and women who think they are conquerors will express race hatred. The very nature of the violence confirms this.
There are three features to the violence enacted by White militaries in peacekeeping that are also evident at Abu Ghraib. The violence is openly practiced (dozens witness it), recorded on film and in diaries, and sexualized (rape and sodomy, both real and simulated). In Somalia, as in other peacekeeping encounters, the violence often involved children and youth of both genders. Belgian troops tied young children to trucks and raced at top speed (something that still happens to Black men in the United States). They roasted children over an open fire. Western troops frequently tied up children as young as six or eight and left them to sit in 90 degree weather (to the point where some of these children under Belgian care died.). Italian troops gang raped Somali women and their leaders told them not to worry because bruises don't show on Black bodies. Western troops, including Canadians, hooded detainees, beat them, applied electricity to their genitals, and urinated on their captives.
The violence of Western troops towards Third World populations is neither exceptional nor hidden. They are not interrogations gone awry although they often happen to prisoners in custody. Trophy photos and videos abound, produced not in order to intimidate and humiliate the enemy, as the American military claimed this week for the Iraq prisoner abuse, but for the use of individual soldiers themselves, to be tacked up on the fridge door or sent home as souvenirs. The photos tell a story of a civilizing mission. This is what must be done to savages and the soldiers, their leaders and the American president all express this view very well.
Why record the violent acts? When soldiers pose for trophy photos, as German fascists did before the second world war, they preserve for posterity their moment of superiority and, crucially, control. The fascist survives his own fears by beating others to the pulp he threatens to become, writes the German scholar Klaus Theweleit. The violence dissolves the threat of engulfment the fascist feels from the alien race, and from women. The recording of the violence tells the men and women who do it, as nothing else can, that they have survived an encounter with savages. They have remained hard, organized, phallic bodies and male egos (even when female) defending themselves against the flood. It is the body that has to express racial arrangements of domination. Words will not do the trick, so powerful are the fears of people who must constantly avoid being overwhelmed by the racial Other.
Violence of this kind, and the photos and videotapes that accompany it, can be found in every encounter that Western troops have in the Third World, whether in peacekeeping or in war. It is to be found wherever people imagine themselves to be menaced by a mass of savages, as did both Robinson Crusoe in the colonial novel, and the New York policemen who beat and sodomized with a stick Abdel Louima. It's a jungle out there, the father of Louima's torturer policeman Justin Volpp told the media.
We should understand the violence in these photos as colonial violence, the violence that is enacted whenever people feel the need to draw the line between the civilized and the uncivilized. This is W.E. Dubois's famous colour line and race wars are required to keep it in place. Ordinary people get drawn into marking the colour line. They learn to think of themselves as people who can only feel whole and in control through dominating racially inferior Others. We are more familiar with the man who knows he is a man only when he can degrade and beat a woman. Meet the man or woman whose intimate fears are put to rest only in the moment of beating those imagined to be racially inferior.
Because it is the violence that comes out of a colonial encounter, that is an encounter that the soldiers understand to be one between conquerors and racially, morally and culturally inferior peoples, we should also understand that prisoner abuse in Iraq (and in North America) is violence done in our name. The American soldier who told 60 minutes that he was just doing the job military intelligence required him to do was almost certainly telling the truth. The soldiers and their leaders understand themselves to be performing their patriotic duty, the duty to keep the natives in line. Prison guards who torture understand that someone has to keep the scum in line. "Tell them in no uncertain terms in language they understand, which is violence," our own Private Kyle Brown said when explaining his participation in the torture and murder of Shidane Arone during peacekeeping duties in Somalia.
The colour line is very much in evidence in the arguments of those who insist that the violence as exceptional and emerging out of the conditions of war. For these people, there is no occupation of Iraq; there is only a benevolent superpower and a people who need help. Outraged by my argument on the CBC television show Counter Spin that the photos show racism, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne responded with angry incomprehension: "how is it racist to rescue people from the most bestial dictator?" Likewise, for Ruth Wedgewood, a Georgetown University law professor, the American presence in Iraq is nothing other than "the attempt to make it possible for Iraq to survive" and to help the Iraqis "make a decent transition to democracy." If abuse occurs it must be put down to "young soldiers getting out of hand." Someone has to stop brutal dictators, warring tribes and fundamentalist regimes where a woman cannot even go to school. It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it.
Meet the superpower that knows itself through violence. The white knight whose violence is only a civilizing impulse. White knights believe that the dictators, tribes and fundamentalist regimes have arisen out of thin air and not out of a history in which the West is heavily implicated. You can follow this racial logic in books about their terrible cultures and religions and about a fateful "clash of civilizations" between the West and the Rest, or lately, between the West and Islam. They form an axis of evil which must be defeated at all costs. This is simply the way they are and civilized nations have no choice but to stop the dark threat. All imperial powers see themselves as white knights confronting dark threats. And buried deep under this fantasy is the history of the dictators they trained, the oil they took, the aspirin they wouldn't allow to reach the children of Iraq because the United States insisted that aspirin could be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. Its all systemic, as the incidents of torture reveal, but it's a system called colonialism and it requires the kind of violence we see in the photos. How else will white knights know who they are?
Sherene Razack is professor of Sociology and Equity studies in Education of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and is the author of Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism published this month by the University of Toronto Press.