The shame of it

06 May 2004
Article
Media coverage of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners has deflected from the vile acts perpetrated against the Iraqi people and has instead served to shield the occupation from public disgust, writes Kamil Mahdi

When evidence of American torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners was broadcast on CBS last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly followed United States President George W Bush in an expression of "shock". Widespread torture and abuse became public knowledge especially after the report of a major US military investigation was leaked to The New Yorker. High-ranking officers were suspended and there followed mutual accusations among members of the different US services and the private mercenaries contracted to them. A couple of days after the US photographs of abuse were published, London's Daily Mirror published photographs of a British soldier apparently assaulting one hooded prisoner wearing a t-shirt with an Iraqi flag. Blair said it was "completely unacceptable", and he promised an investigation. He also hinted that the photos might not be genuine and expressed full confidence in British troops.

British Chief of General Staff Sir Mike Jackson also wanted further proof of British brutality against Iraqis, and said of the torture: " If proven, the perpetrators are not fit to wear the Queen's uniform and they have besmirched the Army's good name and conduct." Minister of State for the Armed Forces Adam Ingram also said that such behaviour was "clearly unacceptable" and claimed that an investigation had been launched. And so it goes, one official after another promising investigations and expressing disbelief that this might be common British practice.

Meanwhile CNN, the BBC and other American and British TV channels have already shifted the discourse from the evidence of the US soldiers' brutality, the illegality and depravity of their actions, the violation of human rights, the nature of the occupation, responsibility up the chain of command, the conduct and justification of the war, into something completely different: "Arab perceptions". Programme after programme and pundit after pundit, including, I am sorry to say, Arab ones, tell us how the undoubtedly genuine US photographs are being viewed on the Arab street. Especially nauseating are those who come on and explain that sexual humiliation is particularly inflammatory for Arabs, as if somehow the fault lies with Arabs for making too much of this. The news channels coldly emphasised the consequences of these violations while choosing to ignore the broader moral, legal and political questions.

As the immediate impact of the US evidence is absorbed, it is then the turn of the so-called "thoughtful" commentators, journalists who supported the war like David Aaronovitch of The Observer on the renegade "left" and William Shawcross of The Times on the right. These attack the Arab media, and by implication, the liberal Western media as well, for reporting US and British atrocities. They say that atrocities committed in Arab jails against the same Arab citizens are not exposed to the same extent in the Arab media, which ignores the fact that Saddam's crimes themselves have received much exposure in the Arab media recently with extensive footage of his regime's torture, murder and killing fields.

All this discussion about perceptions and about what has and has not been broadcast deflects from the vile acts being perpetrated against the Iraqi people, and looks like an attempt to shield the occupation from public disgust and rejection inside the occupying countries themselves. These acts are now being perpetrated in the name of bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq, thereby damaging Iraqi democratic aspirations in the same way as Saddam damaged Arab nationalist aspirations when he practised torture in the name of Arabism. It is not the foreign identity of the new torturers that is important, but the identity of their alleged project. It is no more a project for democracy than Saddam's crimes had been in the service of Arab liberation.

One of the most disturbing aspects of life under Saddam Hussein was when the regime forced ordinary Iraqis to behave in uncharacteristic ways. People resisted such pressure upon them in many different ways and often at a cost to themselves. Nevertheless, under Saddam the perpetrators of torture had been the worst elements in society who were mobilised by a brutal fascist-like dictatorship. They tended to be hardened, desensitised, isolated, ignorant, and probably sick psychopaths. This time, the torturers are apparently ordinary British and American soldiers; the world's most powerful, best- equipped and disciplined armies. Some may be reservists who are drawn straight out of their communities. They may be college boys or girls, or otherwise law-abiding citizens in their countries, and they live in a democratic system and vote for their leaders. Some British and American commentators and politicians have blamed cruel behaviour on the soldiers' lack of prison guard training.

This seems a strange argument. Do these soldiers need to be trained out of their depravity? Instead of an expression of shame and a determination to pursue the truth by applying serious journalistic standards, apologists in CNN and the BBC have concentrated on discussions of "Arab street" perceptions, thereby adding insult to injury.

Going back to the recent photographs published in the Daily Mirror, there is growing suspicion that these particular photographs may be a hoax. The suspicion is that this is being used to blunt the impact of incontrovertible evidence of brutality in Abu-Ghraib and other prisons. Cases of inhuman treatment and killings of Iraqis in British custody are coming before British courts, and it would certainly be useful for the British military if a highly publicised case turns out to have been a fake. Until CBS broadcast the photographs, reports of Iraqi complaints of torture have received little attention in the British and American media. When evidence was brought forward 11 months ago, it was quickly subsumed in promises of investigations and a barrage of claims that the British occupation forces have a better relationship with Iraqis than the Americans have.

In Britain, an early scandal broke out soon after the occupation of Iraq revealing brutality by British troops that was almost identical to that practised by the US soldiers in Abu- Ghraib prison. The Observer reported the following on 1 June 2003: "Gary Bartlam, 18, from Dordon, Warwickshire, is being questioned after pictures apparently showing the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners were found on a film he handed in for processing on returning home on leave last week. The images are believed to show one Iraqi prisoner bound with rope and suspended in a net cradle from a forklift truck driven by a British soldier. Others show Iraqis being forced to simulate sex acts with British troops or each other."

The paper went on to report that: "In other images an Iraqi's head appears to have been pushed into the groin of a British soldier who is not wearing trousers. In another, two prisoners appear to have been forced to strip and simulate sex. One picture shows two naked Iraqis cowering on the ground. Much of the rest of the film was of Iraqi soldiers surrendering to British troops."

One year on when Tony Blair and his officials say they are "shocked", there is no reason to believe them. It appears more likely that they have been engaged in a cover-up rather than an investigation. This time, however, a cover-up will not work, because the entire occupation policy is unravelling. What is especially notable is the remarkable similarity in depravity between the torture methods used in different Coalition detention centres through an entire year of occupation and regardless of promised investigations. This issue will not go away and it will haunt Bush, Blair and their imperial enterprise to their political oblivion.

This article originally appeared in Al-Ahram weekly. Copyright 2004 Al-Ahram weekly