Wednesday, September 19, 2007
This post, to some surprise of readers who know me, will criticize the USA.
Look at the two photos above. Are they familiar to you? My guess: the first one is, the second one isn't.
The first one is among the numerous photos taken at Abu Ghraib and documenting abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US guards. The prisoner, named Jabar, was "hooded, positioned on a box, had wires attached to both hands and his penis and was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off. The army claims, however, that the wires were not live and that the prisoner at no time faced actual electrocution, only the threat thereof. This was later contradicted by Jabar, who stated in an interview that the wires were electrified and had been used to give shocks. There is no way to substantiate the claims of either party" (Wikipedia).
The second photo is from an Aug. 20 article in Mother Jones magazine titled School of Shock, by Jennifer Gonnerman. It is about "the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Canton, Massachusetts, 20 miles outside Boston. The facility, which calls itself a "special needs school," takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten... Employees carry students' shock activators inside plastic cases, which they hook onto their belt loops. These cases are known as "sleds," and each sled has a photo on it to ensure employees don't zap the wrong kid."
These two examples of abuse of defenseless people received quite different media coverage. Abu Ghraib immediately was blown up to national and then international proportions. Judge Rotenberg Center didn't make its way into any of the major media. I read about it in some disability-related Web sites. I shan't be surprised if a US reader learns of it from this very post. And of course it continues to function. Disabled children are being shocked now as I am writing and most likely will still be shocked as you are reading.
While both cases of abuse are unacceptable from moral point of view, my opinion is that Judge Rotenberg Center is worse. Because it is worse to abuse children than adults and it is worse to abuse disabled people, because of their vulnerability, than non-disabled people. Especially if their disability is the reason for the abuse. Well, this is just my opinion. If you don't agree, let's say that the two cases are equally bad. Then, why did the US media, authorities and public apply such double standard? If the reaction was driven by mere moral indignation, we would expect the outcry in response to Judge Rothenberg Center to be at least as strong as that to Abu Ghraib. This isn't the case. So let's see what factor, besides moral indignation, drew additional sympathy to Abu Ghraib prisoners.
It is good to keep watch over what your government and your army are doing. In fact, it is a duty of the good citizen. It is good to stick to your moral principles when dealing with an enemy and to regard detained suspected enemy supporters as innocent until proven guilty. But when there is too much of these good things, they cease to be good. Moreover, they play directly at the hands of the enemy.
One of the most devastating events of the 20th century was the Vietnam War. It lasted for decades and ended with US defeat, mainly due to lack of decisiveness and popular support. The antiwar opposition was heterogeneous, including non-specific pacifists, communists, people not understanding the communist threat and people simply not wanting US lives and resources to be lost on some presumed long-term US interests abroad and/or helping unimportant small yellow people. It is noteworthy that, while mainstream antiwar protesters were speaking of the Vietnamese civilian victims only, a significand minority carried the logic to its end and marched under the banner of Viet Cong. Perhaps it was psychologically more acceptable for a US citizen to think that his army retreated from the battlefield for moral reasons than to preceive it as a military defeat. So the US troops became the bad guys while, correspondingly, Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army became the good guys.
The grim legacy of the Vietnam War is that what used to be regarded as treachery became mainstream behaviour in the USA. People are extremely suspicious to the justifications their government uses to take part in a war, and the war tactics. In particular, it is largely thought that wars could and should be carried out without losing soldiers, without killing and maiming civilians and without violating any human right of enemy combatants. When the US army falls short of these very high moral and technical demands, US public withdraws its support and gives it to the enemy instead. Let's face it: although it is not justified to abuse even the doer of the most despiceable action, the abuse at Abu Ghraib is regarded as so horrible because the victims are thought to be innocent. Not innocent for technical reasons or in the sense of "until/unless proven guilty", but precisely because they are thought to have taken part in the resistance. At the moment when the war in Iraq turned out not to be so quick, easy and popular as it was hoped to be, the US public started to doubt its moral grounds. Soon it looked forward for every piece of news supporting the idea that US army is "occupier" and Iraqi Islamist terrorists (plus all foreign jihadis who sneaked into Iraq to kill Americans) are patriots and freedom fighters.
The media of course contributed much to this unfortunate turn, as they had to the defeat in the Vietnam War. They happily broadcasted each (proven or unproven) report of misconduct by US troops or their allies, even when it was clear that it would harm the US cause. The publicity given to reports and photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted, among other things, in the kidnapping and beheading of innocent US businessman and humanitarian Nicholas Berg. I hoped in vain that Berg's death would lead to some soul-searching by US journalists and other opinion makers. I talked about it with my brother who lives in the USA. He said, "I couldn't name a single newspaper or TV channel which would decline to publish hot news because of care about vital US interests."
In this situation, prospects for the future don't look very bright. As a Turkish general once said, "the main problem with having the Americans as allies is that you never know when they are going to stab themselves in the back."