News and analysis: The face of Iraqi prisoner abuse
Sometimes looking at the actions of a single person can tell us what has occurred collectively. The apparent torture campaign against Iraqi prisoners by American forces may have involved thousands of American military personnel over the months, but I've found myself focusing on one of them. We have learned about what is occurring there because the media did not fall for efforts to suppress photographs of American soldiers in that occupied country. Among those presenting evidence of American misconduct is The Washington Post. It describes hundreds of photographs of troops engaged in various activities in Iraq, including humiliation and torture of prisoners and abuse of corpses, it has at hand.
The collection of photographs begins like a travelogue from Iraq. Here are U.S. soldiers posing in front of a mosque. Here is a soldier riding a camel in the desert. And then: a soldier holding a leash tied around a man's neck in an Iraqi prison. He is naked, grimacing and lying on the floor.
Mixed in with more than 1,000 digital pictures obtained by The Washington Post are photographs of naked men, apparently prisoners, sprawled on top of one another while soldiers stand around them. There is another photograph of a naked man with a dark hood over his head, handcuffed to a cell door. And another of a naked man handcuffed to a bunk bed, his arms splayed so wide that his back is arched. A pair of women's underwear covers his head and face.
The pictures were taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, copied to compact discs and passed among soldiers. Many of those who participated in the apparent abuse and distribution of the photographs were military police entrusted with upholding the law.
Six soldiers have been charged with prisoner abuse so far, but it is one who hasn't been who interests me.
Yesterday, in Fort Ashby, W.Va., two siblings and a friend identified Pfc. Lynndie England, 21, as the soldier appearing in a picture holding a leash tied to the neck of a man on the floor. England, a member of the 372nd, [a military police company] has also been identified in published reports as one of the soldiers in the earlier set of pictures that were made public, which her relatives also confirmed yesterday. England has been reassigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., her family said. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. The military has not charged her in the case.
England's friends and relatives said the photographs must have been staged. "It just makes me laugh, because that's not Lynn," said Destiny Goin, 21, a friend. "She wouldn't pull a dog by its neck, let alone drag a human across a floor."
England worked as a clerk in the unit, processing prisoners before they were put in cells, taking their names, fingerprinting them and giving them identification numbers, her family said. Other soldiers would ask her to pose for photographs, said her father, Kenneth England. "That's how it happened," he said.
Soon after CBS aired its photographs, Terrie England said she received a call from her daughter.
"'Mom,' she told me, 'I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,'" Terrie England said.
England is of interest to me because I believe she represents the typical abuser, assuming of course that the pictures tell the truth. She is a lowly clerk, nondescript in appearance and sounds rather vapid. Yet, because she has the power of the wealthiest, most influential country in the world behind her, she is empowered to beat Iraqi prisoners, even lead one around on a leash as if he is a dog. Her superiors created the environment in which widespread abuse appears to be occurring, but they rely on people like England to carry it out. I suspect those underlings do so very willingly, considering the humiliation, crippling and even killing of other human beings just fooling around. Unfortunately, when it comes to interaction with the Other, that is the American way.
Defenders of whatever the Bush administration does are trotting out various evasions to counter facing the growing scandal. They say the allegations are made up. After all, you can't trust what 'those people' -- Iraqis who claimed they were abused or witnessed abuse -- say. Americans who say the same thing are fifth columnists. The photographs? Maybe they have been faked by persons unknown. Or, the American soldiers staged them. (Yet, so far no Americans have been identified as posing as Iraqi inmates.) Commenters at a large Right Wing group blog, Blogcritics, claim torture is not occuring at all. They've yet to address the matter of 25 or more Iraqi prisoners killed in American custody. Perhaps they will say death is not really death.
Last week, I read about and listened to a toothless inquest into the killing of an unarmed African-American motorist here at home. The justifications for mistreating, even killing, someone who was considered subhuman were the same ones I am hearing in regard to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The gist is that whatever those empowered in America do is acceptable because they are empowered and American. Again, I am reminded that my countrymen perceive internal and external 'enemies' the same way.
I don't know whether Pfc. Lynndie England will be charged with her participation in abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The fact she appears in numerous photographs over a period of time, and, that those pictures have become public, may lead the powers that be to turn on her. In the absence of the publicity, I believe England and her compatriots would have continued to do what they have apparently been doing, with their superiors' knowledge and support.
•Seymour Hersh tells it like it is at the New Yorker.
•See Lynndie England in action at Democratic Underground.