Americans were shocked when they learned about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Or were they? Certainly, the media reported shock and outrage on the part of the public to the unpleasant revelations. But the outrage, if it really existed, has certainly not been a lasting outrage. The White House response to photos of young military personnel sexually assaulting and humiliating prisoners was to imply that only a few poorly supervised bad apple MPs would do such things. President George W. Bush said: "These acts do not represent the values America stands for." However, many Americans do not abhor the treatment of those prisoners at all. In fact, they think there should be more of it. "They do it to us," is commonly heard in restaurants where ordinary people discuss current events. Republican Congressman James Inhofe of Oklahoma dismissed the whole thing by saying, "These prisoners -- they're murderers, they're terrorists ... Many of them probably have American blood on their hands." Inhofe did not apologize for his comments either, which implies he believes he speaks for a large segment of the voting population in his state that applauds such behavior.
An article in World Watch ("What a Nation Values," 2004) points out that the soldiers who were tormenting the prisoners are very young, perhaps only a year or two out of high school, and the product of public schools where playground bullying, a time-honored American institution, has escalated to horrendous proportions in recent years. A boy beating up and humiliating other boys is a tradition and "a big part of the American experience." The writer suggests that abuses at Abu Ghraib reflect what happens everyday in American schools. If the soldiers thought what they were doing was wrong, he argues, they would have tried to hide their actions; but no, they photographed themselves. In movies, TV, and video games young people have seen tens of thousands of violent acts, often performed by the good guys: "Kick ass is what a hero does," at least this is the message of violent video games which repeat narratives found everywhere else in the media, as well. The games offer an exciting and seductive portrayal of so-called real men and the opportunity to play at being this kind of a man: "Many of these texts [games] align masculinity with power, with aggression, with victory and winning, with superiority and strength -- and, of course, with violent action" (Alloway & Gilbert, 1998, p. 97). Like girls who play with Barbie and learn to be caregivers, Boys play violent video games for learning purposes and learn to be men. We live in a culture that allows such messages, distorted and destructive to manhood, to be sold to boys and young men for big profits. Media violence and the real thing are not the same, of course, but in a culture where the biggest and most lucrative industry is entertainment, media experience becomes reality. A certain kind of hardedge mentality develops. What do 10,000 civilian deaths matter? Or a few hundred blown-up buildings? If the bad guy, Saddam, goes down, all is well.
In fact, the treatment of the prisoners does reflect the values of the Bush administration. Of course, there are some Americans whose values are not in line with torture, violence, war, and the destruction of civil liberties and human rights, people like Dennis Kucinich and Marianne Williamson who are working to create a U.S. Department of Peace; religious groups like Unitarians and Quakers who believe that people need to think more than they need to believe; the Union of Concerned Scientists who keep trying to prevent America from returning to the Dark Ages; the Human Rights Watch; and the legacy of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. ("What a Nation Values," 2004). But, in general, these people are not the voting block that supports George W. Bush. People who support Bush, his values, and policies are people like Ann Coulter who wrote in the National Review that America should strike back at Muslim terrorists, "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." The National Review reports receiving lots of e-mails in response to her article from readers who agree and urge that we "nuke" Mecca. In this kind of retaliative cultural climate, why are we so surprised when American soldiers torment, degrade, humiliate, and torture prisoners of war?
Although President Bush says publicly, "the United States reaffirms its commitment to the worldwide elimination of torture ... freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law," his administration has actually fostered and encouraged it. Harold Koh (2005) suggests that after the 9/11 attack the administration had the opportunity to set up a democratic long-range plan for controlling terrorism. Instead, the administration looked for shortcuts, and torture was one of them, "a substitute for multilateral police work; the uncertainties of intelligence gathering; the expense of guarding ports, reservoirs, and transportation centers; and the financial regulation necessary to cut off the funding of terrorist groups" (p. 7). Koh testified before the Senate that the torturing, which is an international crime, is done with government authorization. Members of the Bush administration developed a torture policy and a legal rationale for torture was created. In his message to the Senate, Koh states: "Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are both illegal and totally abhorrent to our values and constitutional traditions. No constitutional authority licenses the president to authorize the torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, even when he acts as commander-in-chief"(p. 8). He went on to say that mistreatment of prisoners also violates the Geneva Convention agreement, under which our own troops were protected from similar treatment.
Information and confessions obtained by torture are notoriously unreliable. People will say anything to escape the pain being inflicted upon them. Pain and fear are what torture is all about in tactics such as holding a person's head under water, boiling limbs, and wiring a mans hands, legs, and penis in order to deliver electric shocks. The people who are tortured are not necessarily guilty either. Many haven't even been charged. When Congress watched 1800 slides and several videos (three hours worth) of Abu Ghraib Prison, they saw American soldiers sexually assault prisoners with chemical light sticks (Barry et al., 2004). They saw them laugh at the abused and mutilated dead bodies of Iraqis. Newsweek states that "U.S. soldiers and CIA operatives could be accused of war crimes. Among the possible charges: homicide involving deaths during interrogations" (p. 26). It was also clear that some of the torture methods used were taught, and ordinary American soldiers didn't think them up all by themselves. "Who taught them? Almost certainly it was their superiors up the line" (p. 27).
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 5 states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The United States ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994 and therefore is legally bound to act in accordance with it. Article 2 states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" (cited in Koh, 2005, p. 9).
Jay S. Bybee from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a 50-page memorandum on August 1, 2002, which explored how torture could be used against suspected terrorists without the United States being held legally liable for it. Koh (2005) states that the memo defined torture so narrowly that many heinous acts committed by Saddam Hussein's regime would not be considered torture. It gave much more power to the president as commander-in-chief than the Constitution actually provides for, and concluded that the International Convention Against Torture permits the U.S. To engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, did not repudiate this document. Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration concluded that the Geneva Convention is outmoded and does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Rumsfeld told reporters in February, 2002 "The reality is the set of facts that exist today with the Al Qaeda and the Taliban were not necessarily the set of facts that were considered when the Geneva Convention was fashioned" (cited in Ross, 2005). In Rumsfeld's view, detainees at Guatanamo Bay are all unlawful combatants who "do not have any rights" under the Geneva Conventions.
Ross (2005) points out that military practice has been governed since the Civil War by Lincoln's humanistic principles relating to the treatment of prisoners in wartime. The Lieber Code, produced by the Lincoln administration, called for restraint and following accepted rules of war. The United States has adhered to principles of the Lieber Code in its treatment of POWs ever since. Article…