Sunday, November 14, 2004

Abu Ghraib: Postcards From the Edge

By Max Gordon
October 14, 2004

When I first saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison
, I tried to make sense of them – and found myself as repulsed and outraged as many other Americans, sharing in the collective disgust and guilt the images evoked. Later, I was forced to admit that disgust and guilt may have been the easier, more public reactions. The complicated, private ones were more difficult to discuss. With their images of naked men, humiliation, simulated sex acts and sadistic behaviour, the pictures were also titillating, exciting and a turn-on.

Knowing that the abuse in the photos was real and not staged for a “war fetish” internet website only increased the fascination and shame. Then there was the dread and anticipation of even more disturbing images on the way. How bad could they be and would they be released to the public? Who might have guessed our next download of porn would come from our own military?

My fear, having had a relationship with pornography, as many men have had, for most of my teenage and adult life, was that when the new pictures were released, the first ones would seem less disturbing and eventually mundane. Old porn quickly becomes stale – and one’s appetite for it requires newer, fresher, more debased images for fulfillment. The prison photographs represent the perfect hybrid of two of our greatest current cultural addictions – reality television and violent porn. No one seemed to understand where the photographs came from, and yet internet porn use and its related addictions are at an all-time high, depicting ever harsher and more realistic forms of abuse and sexual cruelty. The line between simulated and actual rape becomes more blurred each day. The most shocking realisation about the photographs at Abu Ghraib
is that they weren’t shocking at all.

The internet, its “virtual” torture chambers, and the children and adults who are exploited there are part of an unspoken American shadow – an illuminated screen in the privacy of our homes, paid for with a credit card and accessed late at night with a secret password. Collectively, we were disturbed by Abu Ghraib, and yet alone we are hungry for these images, desperate to understand how “they” (the depraved few who we were told betrayed our country) could do it, and if any of “that” is in us.

We were told that these acts were isolated incidents, that the offenders would be punished, and that with their court-martials, all misbehaviour would cease. But we know better, or should. While the evidence clearly indicated that the accused acted reprehensibly, the implications of Abu Ghraib extend beyond the suggestion of a college hazing party gone wrong. The abuse was systematic, ritualistic, determined.

Gazing at the photographs isn’t as hard as taking a deeper look at our relationship as Americans to the kind of rage and hysteria unleashed in our culture when unchecked power and unconscious sexual aggression meet powerlessness and permission to use excessive violence. It is in our police brutality and our prison system. It is the “non-white” body that is consistently menaced and devalued in this society, constantly jeopardised. The only true source of terror the pictures contained came from the familiar realisation that the events taking place had less to do with interrogation and war and more with racism
and boredom. Our president has said that the pictures taken from Abu Ghraib are not the America that he knows, but to me, as a black man, they are an America that is all too familiar.

Placed together, the photographs form an American family album of racist, pornographic iconography: a hooded Iraqi man standing with arms extended and wires attached to his body recalls a naked African man standing on an auction-block awaiting sale; an Iraqi man’s face contorted in terror and forced against prison bars as dogs are set on him conjures up the image of a civil rights freedom-rider stumbling to escape police-dogs and fire-hoses in Alabama; the image of naked Iraqi men twisted and bound together or stacked in pyramids becomes captured African men and women, suffocating and dying in slave ships; an Iraqi man curled up on a prison floor and held at the end of a leash is the lynched body of a black southerner, freshly cut down from a tree in Mississippi, or James Byrd
, dragged to death until he was decapitated, in Jasper County, Texas.

We find the smile and pointed finger of PFC
Lynndie England incomprehensible, and yet her gesture and smile aren’t without historical precedent. In a photograph taken from the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, a man with a Hitler-moustache looks into the camera and points to the two lynched men in the background.

It is a documented fact that American lynchings were often captured in photographs and in many cases, made into postcards. John Allen, in his book Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photographs in America, describes the murder of Jesse Washington
– a black man castrated, mutilated and burned alive in front of a crowd that included women and children. A postcard sent with his image on the back reads: “This is the barbecue we had last night.” Afterwards, Washington’s corpse hung in public display in front of a blacksmith’s shop. The photograph of a prison corpse, “stressed” to death by interrogators and packed in ice, haunts us as we remember the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till brutally murdered after having been accused of insulting a white woman. Till was fished out of the Tallahatchie river and laid in an open casket, at his mother’s insistence, for all the world to see.

Now the world has seen another open casket with these images of Abu Ghraib. We Americans went into this war – or so we were told – to liberate a country and bring democracy and freedom. Instead, we have exported an updated version of the Ku Klux Klan.

Anyone who has ever faced a serious addiction, as I have, knows that things get worse until you reach bottom. A country can have a bottom too, and hopefully we reached ours with Abu Ghraib. The question was never how could we commit the atrocious acts seen in the photographs, but rather how could we not – given our unexplored relationship to sex and racial violence
, and our unwillingness to examine the role it has played as entertainment and a stress reliever, since the slave trade.

I fear the dehumanisation in these photographs because it is contagious. I have perpetuated it through my own use of porn and had it waged against me personally as I have been stigmatised because of my race. It is found in the indifference to political freedom that is woven into the fabric of the Patriot Act and in the specious argument for going to war in the first place.

This war and the justification for its existence, are, in fact, the true obscenities, the real pornographic acts – the pictures from Abu Ghraib are merely an afterthought. The accused will, perhaps, be punished for what they did, and rightly so, but they aren’t the architects of this war and they are not responsible for its corrupt ideology. It is Donald Rumsfeld’s disgrace, not that these events took place, but that they were ultimately exposed; and with their exposure comes the very real possibility that some of us will finally wake up and begin to ask, what is going on in this country? Which lives are considered vital and which are ripe for exploitation – for porn, for war, for oil?

Perhaps it took an addiction to pornography to understand what pornography is and isn’t. Surprisingly, it isn’t really about sex. Pornography is a psychological orientation to existence. It is the precise moment in one’s mind when the commodification of a human life outweighs the importance of the potential creativity of that life. It is the cultural requirement and basis for all war – and it defines those whom we send to war as much as those whom we fight. It is the belief that we who are right and powerful exist in reality, and the persons who we harm, or who we put in harm’s way, exist only as an image. We perpetrate our wars and there is no grief and no personal culpability because ultimately no one (no one who really mattered, anyway) ever existed.

Abu Ghraib, for many Americans, was the first real intrusion of the war on our psyches. If we accept their brutal invitation and resist the temptation to reduce them to titillation and spectacle, the images we’ve seen have the power to cause genuine heartbreak – the beginning of recovery and change. Except for the families who have lost loved ones, this war has made no demands on the average American, has left very few lasting images, and caused no real deprivation or inconvenience of any kind.

It is a war that has been handled for us – with occasional status reports to let us know if we’ve won yet. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell
, doing “Dixie” damage-control for this administration, have distracted us from having any real discourse on the racism of this war. In this theatre called the "war on terror" they provide the final insult and the ultimate racist perversity, while at the same time achieving someone's pornographic American dream: black people who finally have the military power to send black people to murder black people.

© Max Gordon

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