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.