Why America can’t cope with these images

A few years back, a book with the provocative title Hitler’s Willing Executioners became a surprising best-seller in the US. Americans were, it seems, drawn to the author’s dubious claim that the origins of the Nazi death camps lay in the German character, and in the specific nature of German anti-Semitism. What happened in Germany, he implied, could never happen anywhere else. Certainly it could never happen in America.
Of course the argument that torture or mass murder could have happened only in a particular culture has deep appeal: no wonder it has been made so many times, about so many cultures. During any conversation about the Soviet Union, someone will eventually claim that Soviet totalitarianism derived from ancient Russian traditions of czar-worship – as if the Soviet Union had not exported its concentration camps to places as un-Russian as Romania or North Korea. Many quietly assume that the mass slaughter in Rwanda could not have happened in a more “civilised” place – a place like, say, Cambodia, with its ancient Bhuddist culture. Surveying the history of the 20th century it is clear that any culture is capable of terrible atrocities.
The American soldiers and civilians responsible for humiliating and possibly murdering Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad over the past few months do not belong in the same category as Nazi or Soviet camp guards who carried out mass murders. But their actions do prove, if further proof were needed, that no culture is incapable of treating its enemies as subhuman. Indeed, it is not difficult to create a situation in which ordinary soldiers of any nationality feel entitled to mistreat prisoners of war. All that is needed is a sense that the ordinary rules don’t apply, a situation more formally known as the absence of the rule of law. In totalitarian societies, the rule of law is always absent, by definition. But even in democracies, the rule of law is often suspended during wartime. This is hardly news: Thucydides wrote of war as a time when the “conventions of human life are thrown into confusion”, and so it remains.
Or perhaps I should rephrase that: this is hardly news in most places, but it is news in the United States. No fewer than three visiting Englishmen of my acquaintance have recently expressed astonishment at the level of panic which has prevailed in Washington since the photographs from Abu Ghraib were made public, a panic which doesn’t seem to have been properly reflected in the British press coverage. Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the press, and all of the people who go to cocktail parties in Georgetown have talked of little else for two weeks.
On the day that the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, testified about the Iraqi prison system before the Senate, the sound of his voice could be heard from car windows and through open office doors all over the city.
To some extent, the agonising is partisan, which is only natural during a presidential campaign. As one might expect, opponents of the war in Iraq have used the pictures to condemn the administration. But politics alone do not explain why this event has had such an impact. The most intense agonising is taking place on the other side of the political divide: it is not the opponents of the war, but its supporters who found the revelations of abuse so excruciating, and who have been discussing them almost to the exclusion of anything else.
In part, this is because, in the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the war has grown more and more to depend upon the assumption that our troops are in Iraq in order to release the country from the grip of totalitarianism, to establish some form of democracy, and, eventually, to help liberalise the economies and societies of the greater Middle East. The sight of Americans torturing Iraqis in the same prison that Saddam Hussein used to torture Iraqis shreds the credibility of that argument. If life isn’t better, why are we there?
But there is another, more profound reason why the photographs have caused so much shock. After the photographs were first published, Mr Rumsfeld’s first reaction to the pictures was “This is un-American”. Looking at the still-classified videos taken at Abu Ghraib, a Colorado Senator demanded to know “How the hell did these people get into our army?” You can think it naive or you can think it sweet, but American exceptionalism – the belief the US really is morally better than most other places – actually does run very deep here. Certainly one of the reasons why Americans have allowed the Bush administration and the intelligence services so much leeway in fighting the war on terrorism is that we find it hard to believe that our army, or our intelligence services, would ever betray the faith we have in them. We may have given them extra powers to interrogate terrorists, but we trusted they would use those powers wisely.
Hence the anger at Mr Rumsfeld, from conservative writers and Republican politicians, and the talk of “betrayal of trust”. Hence the use of phrases like “a tarnished mission”, and the agonised interviews with soldiers in the field decrying the behavior of “a few stupid privates”, worrying that it will affect the image of the whole army. Hence, also, the calls for reinstating the rule of law in Iraqi prisons, the immediate banning of “coercive techniques”, the demands to see what are, by all accounts, really quite revolting videos made in Abu Ghraib, many showing the prison guards having sex with one another.
Don’t be surprised if this anger lasts some time, and don’t underestimate its power. After all, Watergate, dismissed in much of Europe as a run-of-the-mill electoral scandal, destroyed Richard Nixon. The implications of failure in Vietnam were sufficient to persuade Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term. If George W Bush is held responsible for the nation’s renewed loss of faith in itself, he too may not be president much longer.