May 23, 2004

The Horrors Against Women

Via The Guardian, we learn the following:
The scandal at Abu Ghraib prison was first exposed not by a digital photograph but by a letter. In December 2003, a woman prisoner inside the jail west of Baghdad managed to smuggle out a note. Its contents were so shocking that, at first, Amal Kadham Swadi and the other Iraqi women lawyers who had been trying to gain access to the US jail found them hard to believe.

The note claimed that US guards had been raping women detainees, who were, and are, in a small minority at Abu Ghraib. Several of the women were now pregnant, it added. The women had been forced to strip naked in front of men, it said. The note urged the Iraqi resistance to bomb the jail to spare the women further shame.

Late last year, Swadi, one of seven female lawyers now representing women detainees in Abu Ghraib, began to piece together a picture of systemic abuse and torture perpetrated by US guards against Iraqi women held in detention without charge. This was not only true of Abu Ghraib, she discovered, but was, as she put it, "happening all across Iraq". ...

Astonishingly, the secret inquiry launched by the US military in January, headed by Major General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed that the letter smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a woman known only as "Noor" was entirely and devastatingly accurate. While most of the focus since the scandal broke three weeks ago has been on the abuse of men, and on their sexual humilation in front of US women soldiers, there is now incontrovertible proof that women detainees - who form a small but unknown proportion of the 40,000 people in US custody since last year's invasion - have also been abused. Nobody appears to know how many. But among the 1,800 digital photographs taken by US guards inside Abu Ghraib there are, according to Taguba's report, images of a US military policeman "having sex" with an Iraqi woman.

In Iraq, the existence of photographs of women detainees being abused has provoked revulsion and outrage, but little surprise. Some of the women involved may since have disappeared, according to human rights activists. Professor Huda Shaker al-Nuaimi, a political scientist at Baghdad University who is researching the subject for Amnesty International, says she thinks "Noor" is now dead. "We believe she was raped and that she was pregnant by a US guard. After her release from Abu Ghraib, I went to her house. The neighbours said her family had moved away. I believe she has been killed."

Honour killings are not unusual in Islamic society, where rape is often equated with shame and where the stigma of being raped by an American soldier would, according to one Islamic cleric, be "unbearable". The prospects for rape victims in Iraq are grave; it is hardly surprising that no women have so far come forward to talk about their experiences in US-run jails where abuse was rife until early January.

One of the most depressing aspects of the saga is that, unaccountably, the US military continues to hold five women in solitary confinement at Abu Ghraib, in cells 2.5m (8ft) long by 1.5m (5ft) wide. ...

Nevertheless, there remain extremely troubling questions as to why these women came to be here. Like other Iraqi prisoners, all five are classified as "security detainees" - a term invented by the Bush administration to justify the indefinite detention of prisoners without charge or legal access, as part of the war on terror. US military officials will only say that they are suspected of "anti-coalition activities". ...

The women appear to have been arrested in violation of international law - not because of anything they have done, but merely because of who they are married to, and their potential intelligence value. US officials have previously acknowledged detaining Iraqi women in the hope of convincing male relatives to provide information; when US soldiers raid a house and fail to find a male suspect, they will frequently take away his wife or daughter instead.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, whose devastating report on human rights abuses of Iraqi prisoners was delivered to the government in February but failed to ring alarm bells, says the problem lies with the system. "It is an absence of judicial guarantees," says Nada Doumani, spokesperson for the ICRC. "The system is not fair, precise or properly defined."

Relatives who gathered outside Abu Ghraib last Friday said it was common knowledge that women had been abused inside the jail. Hamid Abdul Hussein, 40, who was there hoping to see his brother Jabar freed, said former detainees who had returned to their home town of Mamudiya reported that several women had been raped. "We've know this for months," he said. "We also heard that some women committed suicide."

While the abuse may have stopped, the US military appears to have learned nothing from the experience. Swadi says that when she last tried to visit the women at Abu Ghraib, "The US guards refused to let us in. When we complained, they threatened to arrest us."
I look forward to hearing from the most dedicated defenders of Bush and our foreign policy that this isn't really all that bad, since Saddam Hussein was so much worse.

Frankly, anyone who finds comfort in that kind of argument and who offers it with any degree of seriousness is not much better, in principle, than Saddam Hussein or our enemies in the "War on Terror."

Certain people, including many of those in this administration and among its advocates, had better try to locate their moral center quickly before they lose it altogether, and for all time.

May 17, 2004

To Destroy the World: The Case of Saddam Hussein

Alice Miller, in the Preface to Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (first published in October 1991):
This year, another war has come to an end. Once again, it is clear that even the most efficient weapons cannot eliminate hatred. Even the most sophisticated weapons are powerless against the will of one single individual who would not hesitate to destroy the world so long as he could achieve his goal--to revenge himself for his repressed injuries, to amass power, govern, and take possession of the world around him, all to avoid his feelings of pain.

One might expect that the millions of people who, thanks to television, watched the events of the Gulf War unfold would be eager to understand the causes of this urge to destroy. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true, at least in the public domain. Neither politicians, experts of various sorts, nor even the majority of journalists asked the essential question: What makes a person wish to destroy the world? ...

We must acknowledge what can already be acknowledged, in order to prevent the destruction and self-destruction of humankind. The oils wells burning in Kuwait confront us inescapably with the sad truth that technology alone is not sufficient to protect us from the consequences of denied, and thus uncontrolled, emotions. Without facing up to their origins--the production of hatred in childhood--we will be unable to resolve such hatred and put an end to the work of devastation.

It is in no way an exaggeration to say that every tyrant, without exception, prefers to see thousands and even millions of people killed and tortured rather than undo the repression of his childhood mistreatment and humiliation, to feel his rage and helplessness in the face of his parents, to call them to account and condemn their actions. Not without reason, that is what he fears the most and what he is constantly seeking to avoid by all available means. Once we have understood the mechanisms by which repressed feelings are acted out, we will find a way to protect ourselves from their consequences--not by producing more weapons, but by fighting for more truthfulness and awareness.
From later in the same book:
Every abused child must totally repress the mistreatment, confusion, and neglect it suffered. If it were not to do so, it would die. The child's organism could not withstand the dimensions of this pain. Only in adulthood do other ways of handling our feelings become available to us. If we do not make use of these opportunities, then what was once the life-saving function of repression can turn into a dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive power. The careers of such tyrants as Hitler or Stalin show how previously suppressed revenge fantasies can lead to destructive actions of near-indescribable proportions. We do not encounter this phenomenon in the animal kingdom because no young animal will ever be trained by its parents to such a complete denial of its nature in order to make of it a "good" animal. Only human beings behave so destructively. Descriptions of the childhoods of Nazi criminals, and of Vietnam volunteers, the Green Berets, show that mindless programming to destructiveness always begins with a brutal upbringing aimed at enforcing unthinking obedience and total contempt for the child. ...

To suppress the feelings, perceptions, and impulses of a child is to commit psychic murder. The experiences [Rudolf] Hoess went through in his youth gave him a thorough grounding in the grammar of death. He simply had to wait thirty years, whereupon Hitler's regime presented him with the opportunity to practice the skills he had learned.

Thousands of his contemporaries functioned in just the same way. Instead of exposing and condemning the criminal behavior of their parents, they uniformly praised and defended it. Had a consciousness of the absurdity and dangerousness of brutal childrearing already existed, monsters like Hoess could never have been possible. The susceptibility to blind obedience and the demand for a man like Hitler simply would not have existed in Germany. ...

The young people demonstrating [in Central and Eastern Europe] in 1989 were capable of exposing the emptiness, terror, mendacity, and destructiveness of Stalinism--all the things with which their parents and grandparents came to terms--because as children they were allowed more freedom than the older generation. To be conscious of unfreedom one must have a concept of what freedom and respect for life are.

A person who has never experienced this as a child, who has only known and been exposed to extreme violence, brutality, and hypocrisy, without ever having come across a single helping witness, does not demonstrate for freedom. Such a person demands order and uses violence to achieve it, just as he or she learned as a child: order and cleanliness at any price is the motto, even if it is at the price of life. The victims of such an upbringing ache to do to others what was once done to them. If they don't have children, or their children refuse to make themselves available for their revenge, they line up to support new forms of fascism. Ultimately, fascism always has the same goal: the annihilation of truth and freedom. People who have been mistreated as children, but totally deny their suffering, use the mottoes and labels of the day. They thereby meet the approval of others like them because they have are also helping to conceal their truth. They are consumed by the perverse pleasure in the destruction of life that they observed in their parents when young. They long to at last be on the other side of the fence, to hold power themselves, passing it off, as Stalin, Hitler, or Ceausescu have done, as "redemption" for others. This old childhood longing determines their political "opinions" and speeches, which are therefore impervious to counter arguments. As long as they continue to ignore or distort the roots of the problem, which lie in the very real threats experienced in their childhood, reason must remain impotent against this kind of persecution complex. The unconscious compulsion to revenge repressed injuries is more powerful than all reason. That is the lesson that all tyrants teach us. One should not expect judiciousness from a mad person motivated by compulsive panic. One should, however, protect oneself from such a person.

It is our access to the truth that can enable us to prevent such people, who yearn for the "order" spawned by violence, from realizing their destructive plans. Fascism will have had its day once society ceases to deny the knowledge we already possess about the production of brutality, violence, and dehumanization in childhood and minimize its dangers. Once this has happened, it won't have a chance in this society. It is not enough to unmask Stalinism and Nazism as mere lies. As long as we do not recognize the circumstances to which they owe their success, these and similar lies can continue to exist, dressed up in forms in keeping with the "Zeitgeist." Fascism is a psychic attitude that floats the latent history of destruction to the surface.

The nature of fascism is not determined by political or economic circumstances. For a long time, people sought to "explain" Hitler's success by pointing to the catastrophic economic situation of the Weimar Republic, and in doing so they sought to collectively deny the origins of Hitler's urge toward revenge, destruction, and power. But we eventually desperately need the truth.

It is not enough to see the surface and describe that. We have to recognize, and defuse, the production of paranoid confusion, which takes place in childhood.

Can one have a dialogue with such people? I believe we must keep trying because this may, indeed it very likely will, be their first opportunity of encountering an enlightened witness. How they make use of this encounter is something over which we have no influence. but we should at least make use of the occasion. Life failed them--something that is, I suspect, true of all prison inmates. One should try to show them that they had the right to respect, love, and encouragement in their childhood and that this right was denied them, but that this does not give them the right to destroy the lives of others. We must also show them that destruction is a dead end. Even millions of corpses could not sate Hitler's hunger for revenge or dispel his hatred. We have to show them that what was passed off on them in childhood as "a good upbringing" was a base, mendacious, and idiotic ideology in which they had to believe in order to survive, and that they now wish to recirculate at the political level. And we have to show them that the people who cheated them, who engendered their misery, their hunger for power and destruction, were not Jews or Turks or Arabs or Gypsies, but their very own parents--clean, orderly citizens, godfearing, respectable churchgoers.
From a New York Times story just two days ago:
It is no surprise to Jerrold M. Post, the founder of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the C.I.A., that Saddam Hussein grew up to be one of the world's most dangerous dictators and a member of President Bush's axis of evil.

"Of all of the leaders I've profiled, his background is assuredly the most traumatic," Dr. Post said in an interview this week in his wood-paneled, African-artifact-filled office in Bethesda, Md., where he is a psychiatrist for patients whose personal struggles have typically not led to two American wars in the Middle East. "His troubles can really be traced back to the womb."

As Dr. Post recounts in his new book, "Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World" (Cornell University Press, $29.95), Mr. Hussein's father died, probably of cancer, in the fourth month of his mother's pregnancy with Saddam. Mr. Hussein's 12-year-old brother died, also of cancer, a few months later. The trauma left Saddam's mother, Sabha, so desperately depressed that she tried and failed to abort Saddam and kill herself. When Saddam was born, she would have nothing to do with him and sent him away to an uncle.

At 3 Mr. Hussein was reunited with his mother after she had married a distant relative, but he was then physically and psychologically abused by his new stepfather. Mr. Hussein left home and returned to live with the uncle when he was 8 or 9.

"So that would produce in psychoanalytic terms what we call 'the wounded self,' " Dr. Post said. "Most people with that kind of background would be highly ineffective as adults and be faltering, insecure human beings." But there is, Dr. Post said, an alternative path that a minority of wounded selves take: "malignant narcissism," the personality disorder that Dr. Post believes fueled Mr. Hussein's rise in Iraq. Perhaps most important, Dr. Post says, is that Mr. Hussein is a "judicious political calculator," not a madman.

Dr. Post, 70, the director of George Washington University's political psychology program, consults privately for the Department of Homeland Security and for Pentagon counterterrorism officials. In his view, the world's most dangerous leaders are often malignant narcissists, a category that he says he thinks includes Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Hitler.

These leaders share four qualities, Dr. Post said: extreme self-absorption, paranoia, no constraints of conscience and a willingness to use whatever means necessary to accomplish goals. They have little empathy for the pain and suffering of their own people, Dr. Post said, but they also can't empathize with their enemies, a critical vulnerability in that "it's very important as an effective leader to get into the mind of your adversaries."

Mr. bin Laden in particular has little empathy for others, Dr. Post said, "and is really consumed with being God's prophet on earth." Mr. Kim, who Dr. Post says is consumed by self-doubt because he lives in the enormous shadow of his father, the founding leader of North Korea, once punished a subordinate who displeased him by sending him home naked. As for Mr. Hussein, Dr. Post says that he is not irrational and is in fact entirely predictable and over three decades in power "worked the international system to a fare-thee-well."
(I emphasize that I do not agree with all of Dr. Post's characterizations of the mechanisms at work here, and I do not think Alice Miller would, either. Nonetheless, Post has identified a significant part of the truth involved, a truth which most people would prefer to continue to deny.

Miller has distanced herself from her original training in psychoanalysis in no uncertain terms. As she says in Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: "Since the publication of my first books it has become clearer and clearer to me that the practice of psychoanalysis involved, on the part of the analyst, a continual evasion of the painful realities of childhood--at the patient's expense. Psychoanalytic theory makes this possible by providing the analyst with an appropriate conceptual alibi. This guarantees that the true stories of mistreatment and the neglect of childhood--of both patient and analyst--remain untold. In order to protect the truth about the deeds of parents, patients may be prevented from finding out how they came to such self-destructive behavioral patterns--why they are addicts, for instance; why they cause accidents or allow themselves to undergo unnecessary surgery. But without this confrontation with childhood we can never hope to understand the pattern.")

May 09, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Dynamics of Suicide, Revisited

In several earlier posts about suicide and its underlying dynamics, I referred to Alice Miller's discussion of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and her mother. Miller makes a number of crucial points, which are applicable to many families:
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear. ...

If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
As I commented: "And that is the most important, the absolutely crucial point: suicide is the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Most people do not grasp this at all." The balance of the earlier essay discusses how these mechanisms are now playing out with regard to many of our troops who have served in Iraq -- and the mechanisms include remarkable, but completely predictable, levels of denial on the part of the surviving family members.

And today, I came across this story [link no longer working]-- which shows, yet again, how these dynamics reveal themselves. As you read the following, notice the clues: the mother's desperate need to find an external agency to blame for this tragedy; the obvious distance that existed between the mother and her son (evidenced by, among other things, the mother not even knowing about the earlier suicide attempt); and the mother's clear, but unadmitted, guilt. On the basis of the mechanisms identified so convincingly in Miller's books, I can guarantee you that the ultimate causes of this tragedy do not lie in any of the events that immediately preceded this tragic death. They lie deep in the son's childhood, and in the family dynamics that shaped him:
HARWICH - Four years after the suicide of her 27-year-old son, Barbara Felton is still angry.

She's angry at her son, Mark Christopher Felton, for ending his life and scarring hers. But mostly she's furious with her son's friend for leaving an unlocked shotgun where her son could find it and use it during a moment of despondency.

"I told my counselor, 'I like being angry,'" Felton said. It not only feels good, the elementary-school computer teacher says, it's helping her do good.

Felton is among a group of Cape women who are converging on Washington, D.C., today for another Million Mom March to protest gun violence in America.

"This is what I feel I can do," Felton said during an interview at her house in Harwich. She promised during her son's eulogy in May 2000 that she would march in the new gun protest known as the Million Mom March.

The first march, held on Mother's Day 2000, came too soon after Mark's death for Felton to participate. The second march, occurring today, calls on Congress to renew a ban on assault weapons. The existing ban expires Sept. 13. ...

According to a fact sheet prepared by the organization, on average a person is killed by a gun every 18 minutes in America, giving the United States the highest rate of deaths from gunfire in the industrialized world.

The fact sheet also includes suicide statistics: It says that 1,273 children or teens have committed suicide with a firearm each year over the last 10 years. Each year more than 145 gun-related suicide victims were younger than 15. ...

What bothers Felton and other marchers is how quickly a suicidal idea can turn into reality if a gun is handy.

The afternoon that Mark committed suicide, he had just found out that a co-worker to whom he felt romantically attached was moving back in with an old boyfriend. He apparently took this move as a rejection, Felton said, and was thrown into despair.

After leaving his job at a Barnstable elementary school, where he was an aide for a student with special needs, Mark went to the apartment of a friend with whom he'd gone target shooting in the past.

According to Felton, the friend wasn't home, but the apartment was unlocked and guns, including a shotgun, were "laying around."

Felton's voice fills with fury when she talks about the guns.

"I don't believe this suicide was planned. I believe it was spur of the moment," she said. "I will never get over my anger at this negligent S.O.B. who left the apartment open with the guns available for anyone to get them."

In fact, Felton encouraged the district attorney's office to prosecute Mark's friend under a relatively new law that criminalizes unlawful storage of weapons. As a result, the friend was ordered to perform community service in a clinic for head injury patients.
The case was continued without a finding, which means that if the young man did not commit another crime the case would be closed after a year.

In many ways, the prosecution helped Felton deal with her own despair. ...

Felton said she forgives Mark. "I don't believe this suicide was planned," she said, pointing out that the week before he died he bought two kayaks, one for himself and one for a long-term girlfriend. ...

But Mark also suffered from clinical depression and his dose of Paxil, a medication used to treat depression, had been increased right before his suicide, Felton said.

Looking back, it seems Mark struggled long before being diagnosed. His high school years were lackluster academically. While he loved Dean Junior College, the two-year Franklin college where he discovered sports broadcasting, he left the University of Utah without earning a four-year degree.

Moving back home with his mother, he discovered a niche in education and child care. He was a camp counselor and a special education assistant for a child with Down syndrome.

"People liked Mark," Felton said.

He didn't always like himself. After Mark's death, Felton found out from his girlfriend and a colleague that Mark had attempted suicide at least once before, by trying to suffocate himself while running a car engine. When that hadn't worked, he'd swallowed a bunch of over-the-counter medicines, only to throw up. ...

Felton said she wishes she'd known about the earlier attempt.
And she believes that if the guns had not been available in his friend's apartment, Mark might have taken the time to think or seek out people for help.
As someone who has suffered from terrible depressions in my own life, I cannot tell you how angry Mrs. Felton's remarks make me. Certainly, I understand the deep agony and pain that she feels, but I still find it difficult to overlook certain of her comments -- particularly when they so clearly reveal the causes that led to this tragedy.

For example, it is rather immaterial at this point whether she "forgives" her son, and to talk about it in this manner reveals that she deeply blames him for taking his life, as if he hasn't already paid the greatest price possible. By implication, she also blames him for the emotions which led to his actions. But Mark is dead, he doesn't exactly give a damn about her forgiveness at this point. And to say that the suicide "wasn't planned" -- when he had previously tried to kill himself, when she was completely ignorant about that earlier attempt, and when he had been diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression -- and to justify her belief that it "wasn't planned" because he had just bought two kayaks, reveals a desperation to avoid the obvious that is painful to see, and verging on the ludicrous.

But this shows the lengths to which people will go to avoid facing profoundly uncomfortable truths. For Mark's mother to face the truth, she would have to be willing to set aside the obvious mythology that she has built up about her family relationships. Mrs. Felton ought to recognize that, in the final analysis, she didn't pull the trigger; her son did. In that sense, she is not responsible for her son's death.

But here is what she, and every other parent who engages in this kind of psychological dishonesty (which is the majority of them), is responsible for: she is responsible for not recognizing the enormous emotional distance that clearly existed between her and her son, and probably between all the members of this family. She is responsible for not seeing that her son probably had always felt unable to reveal his true feelings to his mother or to anyone else. Remember Miller's comment about Plath: "Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person."

Those words probably describe precisely how Mark Felton felt throughout most of his life, beginning in his childhood. And that is one of the major causes for his death. And his mother is responsible for refusing to admit, or it appears even honestly to seek for, the truth. Instead, she pretends that gun control laws would have solved this problem, and searches for any semi-plausible outside source to blame, rather than looking inward. It is remarkable to see that her search for an external villain even led her to encourage the prosecution of Mark's friend, a move that Mark himself might well have condemned.

This is the kind of family tragedy that is enacted every day, in countless families, only usually without this particularly horrible tragic ending. But this kind of emotional distance, the absence of the belief that one may communicate one's genuine feelings and not be "blamed" for them, and this sort of denial are common to almost every family. One of the results is the sort of deep, unreachable emotional numbness that can be seen in so many people today.

In these ways, too, the denial goes on...and the tragedies continue. And people still refuse to see the truth, even when it is screaming in their faces.

Instilling Obedience and Denial, Continued

From an entry of mine only several days ago, about the obedience-denial mechanism so crucial to the military and prison command structure:
With regard to the comments that [Jeremy] Sivits would only have done this if "he was ordered to do it," one would think that people would not be so eager to fall back on the "I was only following orders" excuse, given that excuse's historical provenance and uses in the twentieth century. That observation, of course, depends on people's knowing the relevant history and understanding its significance, which many of these people might not. (The article is also disturbingly similar to all those stories about the "boy next door" who turns out to have been a serial killer -- when all his neighbors talk about what "a nice, sweet, gentle boy" he was. All that such stories reveal is how unperceptive the majority of people are about psychology, and how they allow themselves to be deceived by superficial appearances.)

The more important point is that there is a certain kind of person -- a person with a strong, genuine sense of self, who knows what he thinks is right and wrong, what is permissible and humane and decent, and what is not -- who, when ordered to commit acts which he considers to be monstrous, will simply say, with full and absolute moral conviction, "No, I will not do that." And he will also be prepared to suffer the consequences.

But it appears, not surprisingly, that not too many individuals of that kind are to be found in the military, or in our domestic prison system. I should immediately state that I do not believe that most of those in the military are capable of the kind of torture and abuse that appears to have gone on at Abu Ghraib, or even a majority of them. But neither is this kind of behavior that unusual in my view, and the American public -- aided and abetted by the equivocations that now flood over us hourly, from every source -- is now engaged in a dangerous exercise in denial. It is dangerous precisely because it denies important, and crucial, facts -- and thus makes the likelihood of the repetition of such horrors in the future that much more likely.

I say it is "not surprising" that many persons who will follow orders -- even when those orders may concern horrific kinds of behavior -- are to be found in our military for many reasons. Some of those reasons have been explained in my series on "The Roots of Horror." Here is a description of how these mechanisms work in part . ...

Note the elements that are present here, and how easily adaptable these elements are to the military, or to a prison system: idealization of the authority figure, which figure can be the military itself and/or a commanding officer; a loss of autonomy or, in other words, the lack of a genuine self - which means that "self" can be filled in with "values" provided by those in authority; and, most important of all, the total and absolute premium placed on obedience, as the greatest of the virtues. This is the kind of person who will never say "no" when confronted with a monstrous order -- and it is precisely for that reason that many such individuals are attracted to this sort of command structure in the first place.
Given the dynamics identified by Alice Miller, it was all too easy to predict precisely what is revealed in this story:
HYNDMAN, Pa. (AP) — The first U.S. soldier to face a court martial in connection with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison grew up in a military family and "knows how to follow instructions," his father says.

Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, was trained as a truck mechanic, not a prison guard, and would have gotten in trouble had he not followed orders to photograph the abused prisoners, father Daniel Sivits told The Associated Press in an interview late last month.

"Apparently, he was told to take a picture and he did what he was told," Daniel Sivits said. "He was just following instructions."
With regard to where the ultimate responsibility lies, Daniel Sivits is correct about the following:
But Daniel Sivits, in an interview from April 30, said he thought the abuse scandal stemmed from a lack of leadership.

"All it is lack of leadership, lack of instruction and lack of standard operating procedure and everyone at the top is covering their butts," Daniel Sivits said. "My only question is this: Where was the leadership?"
But as to why Jeremy Sivits himself was willing to obey these particular orders, this is still the key to the explanation:
Daniel Sivits said he spent 22 years in the military and his son grew up in the military. "He knows how to follow instructions," he said.
One of these days, people will begin to acknowledge the truths identified by Miller -- and will start to alter the ways in which they raise their children, insisting on obedience and adherence to rules above all, insisting on the denial of the spontaneous, vital, authentic self, and insisting all the time that they do it "for the child's own good."

But until that day comes, horrors will continue to be unleashed on the world. And stories like the ones from Iraq will never end.

May 08, 2004

The Real Scandal

Just the other day, I documented the decades-long history of severe abuse and officially-sanctioned rape in prisons here in the United States. Today, The New York Times discusses some of these same issues.

What the story makes indisputably clear is where the real nature of the Iraq abuse-torture scandal lies: it does not lie in the fact that it occurred at all, or that it supposedly involved only "a few" aberrant U.S. personnel. No: the true scandal lies in the fact that, given the history of prison abuse and rape here in the United States, and given how the U.S. went about reconstituting the criminal justice and prison system in Iraq --and given the particular individuals they selected for positions of authority and power -- the current scandal was the logical and inevitable result.

In other words, the current scandal was completely predictable, and in fact unavoidable, for anyone who was paying attention -- and for anyone who thought about these issues at all. Those qualifications would appear to exclude everyone in the current administration. That alone is grounds to fire every single one of them, either now or in the November elections.

Here are some excerpts from the Times article:
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.

The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates. Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.

The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq as part of a team of prison officials, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to rebuild the country's criminal justice system.

Mr. McCotter, 63, is director of business development for Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based firm that says it is the third-largest private prison company, operating 13 prisons. In 2003, the company's operation of the Santa Fe jail was criticized by the Justice Department and the New Mexico Department of Corrections for unsafe conditions and lack of medical care for inmates. No further action was taken.

In response to a request for an interview on Friday, Mr. McCotter said in a written statement that he had left Iraq last September, just after a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Abu Ghraib. ...

In a 1999 opinion, Judge Justice wrote of the situation in Texas, "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions."

In a case that began in 2000, a prisoner at the Allred Unit in Wichita Falls, Tex., said he was repeatedly raped by other inmates, even after he appealed to guards for help, and was allowed by prison staff to be treated like a slave, being bought and sold by various prison gangs in different parts of the prison. The inmate, Roderick Johnson, has filed suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Mr. Johnson.
And note this well:
Asked what Mr. Bush knew about abuse in Texas prisons while he was governor, Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said the problems in American prisons were not comparable to the abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib.
Really? Why not? They appear to be precisely identical in many, if not most, fundamental ways.

These words of Ashcroft's now have a particularly awful and unintended resonance to them:
When Mr. Ashcroft announced the appointment of the team to restore Iraq's criminal justice system last year, including Mr. McCotter, he said, "Now all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land, and we will help make that freedom permanent by assisting them to establish an equitable criminal justice system based on the rule of law and standards of basic human rights."

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Monica Goodling, did not return phone calls on Friday asking why Mr. Ashcroft had chosen Mr. McCotter even though his firm's operation of the Santa Fe jail had been criticized by the Justice Department.
These additional details should also be noted:
In Utah, in addition to the death of the mentally ill inmate, Mr. McCotter also came under criticism for hiring a prison psychiatrist whose medical license was on probation and who was accused of Medicaid fraud and writing prescriptions for drug addicts.

In an interview with an online magazine,, last January, Mr. McCotter recalled that of all the prisons in Iraq, Abu Ghraib "is the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison. They had cell housing and segregation."

But 80 to 90 percent of the prison had been destroyed, so Mr. McCotter set about rebuilding it, everything from walls and toilets to handcuffs and soap. He employed 100 Iraqis who had worked in the prison under Saddam Hussein, and paid for everything with wads of cash, up to $3 million, that he carried with him.

Another problem, Mr. McCotter quickly discovered, was that the Iraqi staff, despite some American training, quickly reverted to their old ways, "shaking down families, shaking down inmates, letting prisoners buy their way out of prison."

So the American team fired the guards and went with former Iraqi military personnel. "They didn't have any bad habits and did things exactly the way we trained them."
Don't be distracted by the inconsequential fact that McCotter left Iraq last September. That doesn't matter.

What does matter is that he was selected in the first place -- and that the entire system and culture of incarceration that he represents appears to have been transplanted intact from America to Iraq. And that system and that culture is one that relies on physical abuse, including rape, as a key means of prisoner control. That story has been a neglected scandal here at home for far too long -- and now the scandal has erupted in Iraq, as well.

As I said in my earlier post about U.S. prisons, it is long past time for people to wake up and face the truth about all this. It is a national disgrace of enormous proportions that the U.S. part of this story has been neglected for so long. Thus, inadvertent though it obviously was (in terms of drawing attention to these matters), the fact that these ghastly practices have now been carried into Iraq may finally shed some light on them.

There is one other aspect of this story that deserves extended attention: the use, both here and in Iraq, of humiliation based in the abhorrence of homosexuality. It is not true, as so many would prefer to believe, that our forces in Iraq use this particular means of humiliation only because of certain Muslim views of homosexuality. Remember the telling detail from the story excerpted above: "male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation." This practice in Phoenix has nothing to do with Muslim beliefs.

Such means of humiliation, which are reported with great regularity here in the United States (if one cares to read about them), arise out of our own culture's view of homosexuality: that it is disgusting, that it represents "weakness" in some unspecified way, and that it represents a failure of "masculinity." These views then serve as the basis for particularly heinous acts of humiliation, which serve to "break" the prisoner by making him appear to be one of the supposedly disgusting and "weak" homosexuals, whether or not he is in fact.

I will discuss these particular issues further, in a separate entry.

May 07, 2004

The Deep Rot and Corruption in Our Nation's Soul

I am beginning to think that the story of the abuses perpetrated upon Iraqi prisoners and, just as significantly, the reaction to that story on the part of many in the administration and among the administration's defenders, are revealing a phenomenon of much deeper and greater significance: a profoundly disturbing rot and corruption that lies all too close to the soul of America. These thoughts are still taking shape in my mind, but I will be writing much more about this very soon.

The issues I am thinking about have a great deal to do with "The Roots of Horror," and the dynamics I have discussed in connection with events in Iraq. They also concern the fact that the Iraqi abuses mirror in many ways behaviors and practices that have been common, condoned and encouraged in prisons here in the United States for many decades, as I documented just yesterday. In connection with that post, a reader points out to me in an email that it is easy to overstate the importance of the 2003 federal law about prisoner rape, since it does not apply to non-federal jails and prisons. As noted in this article from 2001, rape is a commonplace in state prison systems -- and certain public officials seem to rejoice in that fact:
Here's what California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said at a press conference about Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth Lay: "I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey."'

Here's why Lockyer should be removed from his office of public trust: First, because as the chief law enforcement officer of the largest state in the nation, he not only has admitted that rape is a regular feature of the state's prison system, but also that he considers rape a part of the punishment he can inflict on others.

Second, because he has publicly stated that he would like to personally arrange the rape of a Texas businessman who has not even been charged with any illegal behavior.

Lockyer's remarks reveal him to be an authoritarian thug, someone wholly unsuited to holding an office of public trust.

But his remarks do have one positive merit: They tell us what criminal penalties really entail.

Contrary to some depictions of prisons as country clubs, they are violent and terrible places. More and more politicians propose criminal sanctions for more and more alleged misdeeds, and as a result ever more kinds of behavior are sanctioned by criminal penalties, perhaps now even selling electricity. Those found guilty of such crimes are put into cages, where they are deprived of their liberty and dignity and, as Lockyer so clearly acknowledged, raped and brutalized. What's worse, Lockyer has indicated that he believes that rape is an appropriate part of the system of punishments he administers.

So apparently singling out a man for a heinous threat is OK because he's the chairman of the world's largest energy trading company. That's according to the man who, as a state senator, sponsored California's 1984 hate-crimes law. Evidently the crusader against intimidation on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation feels no hesitation at all about intimidating someone and threatening him with the brutal use of physical force simply because he heads the world's largest energy trading company.
The most disturbing question is the one posed at the end of this column:
An Enron spokesman said that Lockyer's chilling stated desire to arrange the rape of Lay does not merit a response. The spokesman is wrong. Lockyer's remarks merit public disgrace and removal from office. After all, rape is not a form of legal justice in America-- is it?
The horrifying fact is that it appears that rape often is "a form of legal justice in America."

In a recent post, I included this firsthand testimony about a brief stay in New Jersey's prison system:
Having spent some time in a New Jersey jail before a false accusation against me was dismissed, I can tell you that the abuses shown in the Iraq photographs are common in many jails and prisons in the United States. I'd bet some of the reservists are jail and prison guards in the US in civilian life. They just did what jail guards in New Jersey normally do on the job. The only difference is that no one is ever allowed to bring a camera into a New Jersey jail.
The reader who alerted me to the Cato article about Lockyer says the following about Chip Frederick, one of the Americans at the center of the Iraqi prisoner story. Frederick had worked as a senior corrections officer at a medium security prison in Virginia. My reader says:
No wonder Frederick complains that he received no guidance from his superiors, thus leading him to think that he was just supposed to do what he normally does when working his civilian job as a guard in a State Prison.

How was he to know that Iraqis, unlike Americans, are supposed to have rights?
Think about that for a while. A long, long while.

Also in this connection, please note this equally disturbing op-ed in The New York Times, "My Life As a Guard." Here are a few excerpts:
It is a heady thing to have prisoners at your mercy. Prison officials in the United States often say that the job involves "care, custody and control." In New York, where I worked as a prison guard for almost a year in the late 1990's, training focuses mainly on the final element — control — but the care and custody are in some ways more crucial. Because therein lies the true test of the officer, the system and indeed the nation: how will you treat those who are helpless before you?

President Bush has said that "the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don't represent America." How, then, does such abuse happen?

Prison work is easier if you don't get too personal with the prisoners, don't empathize with them too much. Soldiering is probably the same: it's easier to fight the enemy if he is faceless, less than human. A military prison, then, has the potential to be the most heartless of worlds. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Third Geneva Convention, revised in 1949, addresses the rights of prisoners of war; the horrors of World War II were the great stimulus to the writing of the convention. The nations of the world, including America, were nearly unanimous that such atrocities should never be allowed to be visited upon anybody again, anywhere.

But here we see the faces of the American torturers of wartime prisoners — and they seem to be having a pretty good time. And the victims of this torture, it should not surprise us, are hooded and . . . faceless.

In the prison where I worked (and in most prisons, I suspect), there are two sets of rules. There are the official rules, which you learn during training and carry in a booklet in your pocket. And then there are the real rules — the knowing what you can and cannot get away with. ...

In a military prison during a time of war, it may be little harder to divine exactly who is in charge, and what's likely to happen if something goes wrong — if a prisoner dies during interrogation, for example. The discredited former commander of Abu Ghraib, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has said that while the soldiers in the photos were technically under her command, military intelligence effectively ran the unit where the abuse took place.

What we do know about the treatment of prisoners in this "war on terror" (of which Iraq, we are told, is a part), is that the Geneva Conventions don't always apply — the prison at Guantánamo Bay, filled with hundreds of "enemy combatants" (who are not afforded the protections of P.O.W.'s) being Exhibit No. 1. Is Guantánamo different from Abu Ghraib? The administration would say yes. Then again, the new head of Abu Ghraib, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, was in charge of the interrogations at Guantánamo until just recently.

President Bush may indeed have felt "deep disgust" upon seeing these torture photos. Then again, the man who sets the tone for the entire war effort has never claimed to be the prisoner-protection president.
A deep rot has infected our country. In part, it grows out of the very old idea of "American exceptionalism" -- the idea that America is set above all other nations, and that we therefore have special entitlements. In other words: the rules that apply to others do not apply to us.

Our President obviously subscribes to this view completely. Indeed, it is the very basis of his preemptive foreign policy. We are the strongest nation in the world militarily -- and we therefore get to choose which nations are behaving in a manner acceptable to us, and which are not. And if they are not...well, then you get Iraq, even when Iraq constituted no serious threat to our national security.

The truly awful nature of this tragedy is that, once and in terms of its original founding principles, the United States was genuinely exceptional, in its recognition of individual rights and the sacred, central place that individual rights had in its most basic political structures. But those principles began eroding well over a century ago. And now, we are seeing the concentration of power in the New Fascist structure of society: the combining of semi-"private" businesses with government into one undifferentiated whole, where it is impossible to tell where the private sphere ends and the public sphere begins.

It is crucial to note that, as long as the original founding principles of this country dominated, we did not engage in foreign wars and occupations. But then, as those principles slowly began to crumble, we embarked upon an unending series of wars and occupations, which have continued with only brief interruptions since they began at the very end of the nineteenth century.

The America of today bears very little resemblance to the America that existed at its founding, or that continued for about a century after that. I am not referring to the obvious, superficial changes, in population growth, or in technological advances and the like. The deepest changes that have occurred reveal an American psychology that I think would have horrified the founders, and that would have been deeply alien to their own world outlook. This new psychology would have horrified the founders in its love of power for power's sake, in the reverence granted to military strength, and in the adulation of our ability to impose our "vision" on other countries and, in time, on the entire world, by means of brute military force.

This kind of role for the United States was hardly what our founders had in mind. And it leads to behavior -- both on the individual and the national level -- that is deeply repellent and horrifying. It should be noted that these behaviors are perfect mirror images of each other: what is sanctioned on the individual level becomes the foundation for national policy. The fact that certain kinds of behavior appear not to be repellent and horrifying to so many -- to all those people who make excuses for or attempt to minimize the Iraq story in a manner which ought to be deeply embarrassing to any genuinely civilized person -- is one of the most disturbing and revealing aspects of this phenomenon.

May 06, 2004

"They Don't Represent America"? Not Quite, Mr. President.

From President Bush's interview with Al Arabiya:
QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you for giving us this chance here in Al Arabiya. Regarding the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, six U.S. soldiers are being reprimanded. Do you think that's enough?

BUSH: First, I want to tell the people of the Middle East that the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don't represent America.

QUESTION: And you just — you've said this is reflected badly here, in the United States of America. How do you think this will be perceived in the Middle East?

BUSH: Terrible. I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, this isn't a country that I've been told about. We're a great country because we're a free country, and we do not tolerate these kind of abuses.
As has been true for quite a while, particularly with regard to issues concerning human life and dignity, Mr. Bush is gravely mistaken about whether the abuse of Iraqi prisoners "represent[s] America," and whether such behavior has been "tolerated" in the United States.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in Farmer v. Brennan:
The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who are convicted of nonviolent offenses, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure.
From Stop Prisoner Rape, and from a statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary:
Rape in prison is an ugly reality that most people have learned to ignore, but prisoner rape is an institutionalized form of cruelty that infringes upon basic human rights, contributes to the spread of disease, and perpetuates violence both inside and outside of prison walls. Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) is a nonprofit human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention. We endorse the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002 as an important first step toward addressing this serious and widespread abuse that plagues institutions nationwide.

The few studies that have been done on prisoner rape reveal astonishing rates of abuse. A recent study of prisons in four Midwestern states found that approximately one in five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. About one in ten male inmates reported that that they had been raped.

Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff members, vary greatly among institutions. In one facility, 27 percent of women reported a pressured or forced sex incident, while another had virtually no reported sexual abuse. The discrepancy between facilities points to the important fact that such abuse is not inevitable. As with the abuse of men, the problem of sexual abuse of women in prison has not been adequately studied.

Youth in detention are also extremely vulnerable to abuse. Research has shown that juveniles incarcerated with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than youth in juvenile facilities, and the suicide rate of juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than that of juvenile detention centers. As states try growing numbers of juveniles as adults, the risk of sexual abuse becomes much greater.

Men, women, and youth detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) are also at risk of sexual abuse. Though SPR has learned of numerous instances of such abuse in INS detention, this issue has never been the subject of research, and the INS has failed address this issue in its detention policies.

Unfortunately, no conclusive nationwide data exist for any of the above mentioned groups.

Male custodial officials have vaginally, anally, and orally raped female prisoners and have abused their authority by exchanging goods and privileges for sex. In many women’s facilities, male corrections officers are often allowed to watch female inmates when they are dressing, showering, or using the toilet, and some regularly engage in verbal degradation and harassment of women prisoners. Women also report groping and other sexual abuse by male staff during pat frisks and searches.

Currently, reporting procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and complaints by prisoners about sexual assault are routinely ignored by prison staff and government authorities. In general, corrections officers are not adequately trained to prevent sexual assault or to treat survivors after an attack.

Even simple prevention measures, such as pairing cellmates according to risk, are uncommon, and basic supervision is often lacking. Prisoner rape occurs most easily when no one is around to see or hear, particularly at night and in hidden areas that are difficult to monitor. Inmates complain about a lack of vigilance, even reporting that screams for help have gone unanswered.

Punishment for prisoner rape is rare. Few public prosecutors concern themselves with crimes against inmates, and instead leave such problems to the discretion of prison authorities. As a result, perpetrators of prisoner rape almost never face charges. Staff members who sexually abuse inmates are rarely held accountable, facing only light administrative sanctions, if any. In fact, some female inmates have reported retaliation from corrections officers against whom reports of sexual misconduct have been lodged.

Prisoner rape has been used in some cases as a tool to punish inmates for misbehavior. Male inmates have testified that they were forced into cells with known sexual predators as a form of punishment for unrelated misconduct.
From the beginning of the survivor story of Tom Cahill:
In 1968, I was arrested for civil disobedience in Texas. I was and placed in a cell with 30 other prisoners, for the next twenty four hours I was tortured and gang raped.

To add to the horror I was experiencing, I later learned from a cellmate that my rape was deliberately orchestrated by the guard who put me there as something called a "turning out party." Among other things, the guards lied to my cell mates, telling them that I was a child molester and promised them an extra ration of Jell-o if they would "take care of” me.

Two years later, I got married and started a portrait business that was quite successful for a while. But as often happens in post traumatic stress disorder, there was a delay of about six years before the full impact of my rape hit me. The trauma of the experience came back daily, and I was no longer able to live my normal life. The only trauma I have had in my life was rape in jail in 1968. I lost my business and my wife. I was homeless for many years, until I received a disability pension from the Veterans Administration.

Rape is crazy-making. It may be the ultimate humiliation, with very serious and long-lasting psychic damage to the victim as well as to close loved ones who are secondary victims.
There are other, similar survivor stories on the SPR site.

Certainly, the President is to be commended for signing the legislation designed to end such abuses into law in 2003. In fact, Tom Cahill attended the signing ceremony. We can only hope that this new law is slowly bringing such barbaric practices to an end. And to be sure, our country is thankfully very significantly different from a dictatorship where these kinds of cruelties and humiliations are a matter of explicit official policy. [Added 1/24/06: Tragically and unforgivably, this distinction between the United States and the most vicious dictatorships is now being seriously eroded, if not fatally compromised.]

Nonetheless, it is a deeply tragic fact that the common occurrence of such acts -- and the deliberate allowance, and even encouragement, of such acts by agents of the state who should have prevented them -- are hardly unknown in the United States. In fact, they have been a commonplace of our history.

Many Americans, and our President it appears, have a deeply naive view of our own history, so naive that it veers uncomfortably close to deliberate self-delusion.

A great many abhorrent practices have a long and despicable history here at home. We are hardly perfect. It is indulging in fantasy to pretend otherwise, and to say that acts such as those reported from Iraq "don't represent America," implying that such acts are virtually known here.

They are not unknown here. It is time for people to wake up, face the truth, and then fix it when necessary -- and we ought to begin here at home, before we presume to tell the rest of the world how to correct their problems, particularly when certain other countries represented no serious threat to us at all.

The truth can often be brutally horrible, and terribly ugly. But surely facing the truth is not as difficult for us, as it was for people like Mr. Cahill to live it. No value should hold a higher place for us than truth, pure and undiluted by fantasy or preferred visions of how we would like to see ourselves. We owe the victims of these kinds of horrific violations at least that much, whether they be Iraqis -- or Americans.

May 03, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Denial Spreads -- and the Desire for Control

The denial and blame-shifting in connection with the Iraqi prisoner-torture story is well underway. As just one example, we have this story:
HYNDMAN, Pa. - In this rural town of 1,500 people, just about everyone seems to know Pvt. Jeremy Sivits, one of the soldiers at the center of an explosive scandal involving the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

People in this tight-knit community were shocked to hear that Sivits faces a possible court-martial for his alleged role in mistreating Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Despite the graphic photos of prisoners being mistreated, townsfolk refuse to believe Sivits, 24, was capable of acting so inhumanely without at least some pressure by his superiors.

That viewpoint gained wider credence yesterday as the Pentagon widened its probe to investigate whether overzealous military intelligence officers may have encouraged soldiers like Sivits to soften up the inmates for interrogation.

"Everybody knows that boy, and if he did it, he was ordered to do it," said Jody Emerick, 34, whose grandparents once owned the house where Sivits' parents, Daniel and Freda, now live.
The story also contains this additional example of buck-passing:
Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the brigade of which the 372nd was a part, said she knew nothing about the abuse until weeks after it occurred and was "sickened" by the photos.

The high-security cellblock where the abuses are said to have happened had been under the direct control of Army intelligence officers, not the reservists under her command, Karpinski told The New York Times.

Karpinski, who was suspended in January, said she believed her superiors were trying to shift the blame away from intelligence officers in Iraq.
With regard to the comments that Sivits would only have done this if "he was ordered to do it," one would think that people would not be so eager to fall back on the "I was only following orders" excuse, given that excuse's historical provenance and uses in the twentieth century. That observation, of course, depends on people's knowing the relevant history and understanding its significance, which many of these people might not. (The article is also disturbingly similar to all those stories about the "boy next door" who turns out to have been a serial killer -- when all his neighbors talk about what "a nice, sweet, gentle boy" he was. All that such stories reveal is how unperceptive the majority of people are about psychology, and how they allow themselves to be deceived by superficial appearances.)

The more important point is that there is a certain kind of person -- a person with a strong, genuine sense of self, who knows what he thinks is right and wrong, what is permissible and humane and decent, and what is not -- who, when ordered to commit acts which he considers to be monstrous, will simply say, with full and absolute moral conviction, "No, I will not do that." And he will also be prepared to suffer the consequences.

But it appears, not surprisingly, that not too many individuals of that kind are to be found in the military, or in our domestic prison system. I should immediately state that I do not believe that most of those in the military are capable of the kind of torture and abuse that appears to have gone on at Abu Ghraib, or even a majority of them. But neither is this kind of behavior that unusual in my view, and the American public -- aided and abetted by the equivocations that now flood over us hourly, from every source -- is now engaged in a dangerous exercise in denial. It is dangerous precisely because it denies important, and crucial, facts -- and thus makes the likelihood of the repetition of such horrors in the future that much more likely.

I say it is "not surprising" that many persons who will follow orders -- even when those orders may concern horrific kinds of behavior -- are to be found in our military for many reasons. Some of those reasons have been explained in my series on "The Roots of Horror." Here is my earlier description of how these mechanisms work in part:
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says [emphasis added]:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
Note the elements that are present here, and how easily adaptable these elements are to the military, or to a prison system: idealization of the authority figure, which figure can be the military itself and/or a commanding officer; a loss of autonomy or, in other words, the lack of a genuine self - which means that "self" can be filled in with "values" provided by those in authority; and, most important of all, the total and absolute premium placed on obedience, as the greatest of the virtues. This is the kind of person who will never say "no" when confronted with a monstrous order -- and it is precisely for that reason that many such individuals are attracted to this sort of command structure in the first place.

This kind of mentality is attracted to prison work here in the United States for exactly the same reasons. In response to a recent post about these issues, a reader sent me a brief, but remarkable, email -- attesting to his personal experience in the U.S. prison system. He chooses to remain anonymous for obvious reasons:
Having spent some time in a New Jersey jail before a false accusation against me was dismissed, I can tell you that the abuses shown in the Iraq photographs are common in many jails and prisons in the United States. I'd bet some of the reservists are jail and prison guards in the US in civilian life. They just did what jail guards in New Jersey normally do on the job. The only difference is that no one is ever allowed to bring a camera into a New Jersey jail.
We know, of course, that this writer's conjecture is true. Note this story about Chip Frederick, for example [link no longer working]:
The Iraq journal of Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, penned in careful handwriting and mailed home as he feared becoming a scapegoat for egregious military misdeeds, paints a nightmarish picture of overworked, undertrained guards coping with hostile Iraqi prisoners and using tactics that flagrantly violated international rules for treatment of detainees.

If true, the 37-year-old reservist's statements are a devastating indictment of a U.S. military that toppled a brutal dictator only to be accused of torturing Iraqis in a prison, Abu Ghraib, notorious for similar and worse horrors during Saddam Hussein's rule. ...

In its most chilling lines, Frederick's journal describes the death in November of an Iraqi described as an "OGA prisoner" - an abbreviation for "Other Government Agency," military jargon for the CIA and other nonmilitary agencies.

"They stressed him out so bad that the man passed away," Frederick writes. The corpse was packed in ice and later prepared to suggest falsely that the prisoner had died under medical care: "The next day the medics came in and put his body on a stretcher, placed a fake I.V. [intravenous drip] in his arm and took him away. This OGA [prisoner] was never processed and therefore never had a number." ...

A disturbing repeated assertion in Frederick's journal is that the abuse was encouraged by U.S. interrogators from "MI," or military intelligence, and "CID," or the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Both are under intense pressure to help stop attacks on U.S. troops.

But no intelligence or CID personnel are among the 17 people, including Frederick, whom the Army has charged or named as under investigation. So Frederick's journal suggests that culpability reaches far beyond those implicated to date. ...

In civilian life, Chip Frederick is a $26,722-a-year senior correctional officer at Buckingham Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in rural central Virginia. His wife, Martha, works in the prison's training department.

The prison houses 985 inmates - roughly the same number now held at Abu Ghraib - including some convicted of murder. Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Correction, said officers such as Frederick are trained at a state academy. ...

Frederick contrasts the absence of clear rules at Abu Ghraib with the precise instructions he has at the Virginia prison, where guards have approved sanctions to use to control prisoners' behavior.
This demonstrates yet another crucial aspect of the obedience-denial mechanism described by Alice Miller. One of the resulting emotions that the child experiences when he is "disciplined" or punished by the authority figure is loss of control. And as a child, of course, he is not in control of anything in his environment (in terms of the punishments that might be inflicted on him). When punishment appears to be arbitrary and unpredictable, that loss of control is terrifying to a child.

In adulthood, and if these issues are not surfaced and resolved in non-destructive ways, the punished or neglected child will seek, among other things, the kind of life where he himself is now in control -- where he enforces the rules, even if he does not set them. And this, among other elements, is one of the primary attractions that a life in the military or in the prison system will hold for a certain kind of psychology -- the psychology of the damaged child, now grown to adulthood.

And thus you have a Chip Frederick, and the others who may have perpetrated these abuses. One of the crucial solutions is to recognize the abuse of children that pretends it is discipline "for their own good," to identify it as the source of profound damage to a great many people, and to end it, once and for all.

As long as it goes on, future potential monsters will continue to be created, and our society will never be safe from them, with or without war. War simply provides another "approved" target on which such people can avenge themselves, when the opportunity presents itself. And, as I have discussed before, this is also one of the major reasons that so many people appear to be so eager to find excuses for war: it is by such means that they seek to exert control, and to make themselves finally feel "safe." They do not recognize that, all too often, their judgments are determined not by what is occurring in the present, but by what happened to them all those years ago, in childhood.