Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Abu Ghraib


I tell you, we must express outrage!

What has happened at Abu Ghraib is bad, bad, BAD! Naked prisoners with or as dogs! Sexual humiliation! Quasi-torture! Amateurish photography! Bow-wow!

Yes, my reaction was one of deep disgust and disbelief that anyone who wears our uniform would engage in such shameful and appalling acts! I'm disheartened! I'm OUTRAGED! OUTRAGED, I tell you! I tell you that just like the President and media talking heads are telling you that they are OUTRAGED! Just like all those members of Congress who say they are reserving judgment until they learn more facts. "More facts" presumably being facts about how the whole thing is playing on the domestic political scene, of course, not facts about treatment of Iraqi prisoners directly.

OK, that's over. Can we now get on with our lives?

Yes, those on the Abu Ghraib staff who have violated military protocol and/or abused prisoners should be punished. And in what seems to be the very few cases in which the actual torture is involved should be examined more carefully and more resources allocated to inhibit repetition. Here's a link to the actual 53-page investigative report for those who are interested.

But few people will download that report, because few people are really all that seriously interested in - or OUTRAGED! at - the "abuse" and "torture." Part of that lack of interest lies in "abuse" and "torture" now being wildly abused and tortured terms themselves - stretched to include everything from use of electrodes on genitals for interrogation to forcing men to walk around in ladies' panties. (And, to the International Red Cross, "insults and humiliation to both physical and psychological coercion.")

But mostly the lack of interest flows from the simple fact that what has been uncovered at Abu Ghraib is just a boring administrative problem in prison operation of the type everyone running a prison has to deal with every day. Is it going to "inflame the middle east?" or "play into the hands of al Qaeda?" or "radicalize the Iraqi people?" Please. No. None of that will happen. None of that will happen because this kind of thing happens all the time, everywhere there are prisons, and doesn't result in any such nastiness. Indeed, even in the United States the big "prisoners' rights" effort launched by various civil rights organizations some years ago essentially died as a homunculus. Even the New York Times, whose coverage of Abu Ghraib has been at least as OUTRAGED! and idiotic as that of most of the mainstream media, buries this little gem deep in the bowels:

Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates. In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation. At Virginia's Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates have reported being forced to wear black hoods, in theory to keep them from spitting on guards, and said they were often beaten and cursed at by guards and made to crawl.

Of course, the front page of the Times is cluttered up with breathless OUTRAGED! headlines like President Backs His Defense Chief in Show of Unity and Head of Inquiry on Iraq Abuses Now in Spotlight and blah, blah, blah. In the mean time, California's Democratic attorney general Bill Lockyer joked that he would like to introduce Enron's Ken Lay to California prison conditions just like those of Abu Ghraib - thereby simultaneously admitting that the state's chief law enforcement officer was fully aware of the problem and thinks it is worthy topic for joking. All to no particular political consequence. Why? Because everyone who matters already knows this kind of thing goes on in prisons and everyone who matters has already decided that the resources needed to keep it from happening are just not going to be deployed. Those resources have better uses. The result is that some studies have revealed that on the average about 48 hours will pass before a young man consigned to an adult state prison in the US will be raped. It's a problem. It's a problem the political system has agreed to do nothing much more about to practically solve - even though politicians and the media must all express OUTRAGE! at the existence of that problem when it is called to their attention, and call for those responsible to be called to account.

Especially if there are pictures.

And exactly which state or federal election can the reader remember being driven - or even influenced - by such considerations?

The fact is that it is very unlikely that the Abu Ghraib story would have received anything like the attention it has received except that we are in an election year and the Democrats and much of their media establishment have become increasingly desperate as both the domestic economy (Strong Growth Continues into 2004, Unemployment Rate Declining, Over 1.1 Million Jobs Created in Past 8 Months)and the general war on terror issues have aligned so strongly in favor of the president and Republicans generally.

But the main consequence of all this fussing will probably be the same main consequence of other such prison scandals: It will be harder to take pictures inside Abu Ghraib in the future.


George Melloan notes in the Wall Street Journal:

Opinion polls suggest that Americans approve of the way Mr. Bush has handled the Abu Ghraib affair. His expressions of outrage and his explanation to Arabs that the behavior of the guards at the prison camp was not consistent with American values, seemingly went down very well.

Exactly. As long as the Administration avoids the obvious pitfall of claiming things like "Our soldiers did it and we're glad!" there is a well-established way of dealing with this issue. Contrition. Outrage. Assert distance of events from values. Punish the perps. Ask who is accountable. Establish a commission. Wait for the whole thing to go away - which it will. And, remember, this is a well understood issue and circus performing without a net is not necessary or encouraged - this means you, Senator Inhofe. Callow truth is no defense for taking unnecessary political risks. Outraged at the outrage? Too clever by half.

Just look at your colleague, Senator ("I-committed-and-saw-committed-atrocities-or-maybe-I-didn't.") Kerry. After first imprudently calling for Donald Rumsfeld to resign as defense secretary, Senator Kerry is now talking about healthcare and the plight of small businesses and, of course, his politically cretinous wife. At least the Kerry campaign is showing it knows where the Abu Ghraib story is headed.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Some people, like Howard Kurtz, think the world will have few things better to talk about than pictures from Abu Ghraib for a very long time. ("Andrew Sullivan is rethinking his support for the war, which he had viewed as "vital to reverse the Islamist narrative that pitted American values against Muslim dignity. The reason Abu Ghraib is such a catastrophe is that it has destroyed this narrative.") Who knew it was all about a "destroying a narrative?" Aren't "naratives" things writers - as in media writers - fuss over? Odd how all the reports of shenanigans at domestic US prisons seem not to have "destroyed the narrative" of US democracy over the years. Of course, now there are pictures - images. That makes it all different. Time will tell. Maybe Mr. Kurtz is right. Maybe all the rules have changed.

In that case, about that matter transmitter I saw on Star Treck last night ...


Maybe voters are thinking about what this mess would look like if we had a President Kerry (and First Lady Theresa!). That might explain why the latest Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll shows that the president would win if the election were held today. The nationwide poll of 981 adults, taken May 2-8 (after the prison scandal broke) revealed that among 823 registered voters Bush leads Kerry 46% to 41%, with independent Ralph Nader getting 5%. In a two-way race, Bush leads Kerry 47% to 44%. In an IBD/TIPP poll taken April 16-22, Bush led by four points in a three-man race. In swing states, Bush widened his lead from 3 points in mid-April to 9 points in early May. He now leads Kerry in the so-called battleground states 49% to 40%.

Yep, George Bush has had a terrible week. Just terrible. A few more terrible weeks like this one and John Kerry might just want to drop out and prepare to spend the rest of his life shuttling among his wife's many mansions: "Ah, today is election Tuesday, so this must be Wyoming!"

[California poll link thanks to Kausfiles. Did Zogby see this poll before making his typically bizarre, trademarked, intended-only-for-attention-getting prediction? How nuts is he?]


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