Racism, Empire and Torture, Pt.2

In this second installment about racism, empire and torture I continue my analysis of this cultural moment by using the lens Errol Morris’ documentary about torture, “Standard Operating Procedure,” (and the companion book), one of the most popular representations of torture.  I contend that we are neither post torture nor post empire nor post racial.

By way of moral contrast, let me begin with some altogether different narratives about Iraq. In March of 2008, hundreds of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan gathered in Maryland to give their eyewitness accounts of the occupations of both countries. The veterans modeled their testimony after the Winter soldier hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. As Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now:

“the war veterans spoke of free-fire zones, the shootings and beatings of innocent civilians, racism at the highest levels of the military, and the torturing of prisoners.”

Most major news outlets did not cover the Winter Soldier event. Goodman broadcast the hearings in which soldiers tearfully described in detail (often illustrating with pictures of themselves) the acts of violence they perpetrated upon Iraqi and Afghani people. In one such account, Jon Michael Turner stripped his medals and ribbons from his chest and ended his testimony as follows:

“I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people, and I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that others have inflicted on innocent people…I am sorry for the things I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”

Carl Rippberger, commenting on a slide of himself in Iraq, said:

“I am extremely shameful of it. I’m showing it in hopes that none of you people that have never been involved ever let this happen to you. Don’t ever let your government do this to you. Its me. I’m holding a dead body,  smiling. Everyone is our platoon took two bodies, put them on the back ramp, drove them through a village for show, and dumped them off at the edge the village.”

As these excerpts reveal, the Winter Soldiers acknowledge personal responsibility for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as they believe that they were a part of a violence orchestrated from the top.

Their stories confirm that a pattern of terror begins with individual soldiers who are asked to, and who do, unspeakable things. Some find the courage to say no on the spot; most do not. But in the case of the Winter soldiers, all now believe that what they were asked to do, and what they did, was wrong. Their testimony is intended to rectify these wrongs by taking personal responsibility and by speaking out against practices of torture and terror, and against war and occupation. Along the same lines, a blog quoting former interrogators reports that some interrogators, when asked “If you had been ordered to waterboard someone or engage in other cruel/inhumane/degrading mistreatment (e.g. hypothermia, long time standing), what would you have done?” offer the following answer: “Refused the order.  That would probably have resulted in my getting fired or re-assigned but so be it.  In addition, I would have documented the incident and reported it to the Army’s (assuming that’s the environment I would have been working in) Criminal Investigation Division, or otherwise appropriate authorities.”  This response is not one that occurred to the majority of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and it is not one that Morris or Gourevitch ever consider possible.

In “Standard Operating Procedure” Morris intersperses vivid reenactments of torture, the Abu Ghraib photographs, and interviews with the soldiers, the latter often shot close up so that their faces fill the entire screen. The viewer has a sense of being face-to-face with torture and literally present with both torturer and tortured.  The tortured, of course, do not speak; their bodies are meant only to contrast to the calm and reasonable voices of the soldiers who give us their accounts of what they did in Abu Ghraib prison. There remains a voyeuristic gaze throughout as we are invited to consume pyramids of naked prisoners. As Lasreg writes, today for the French, as the former colonial power in Algeria,  the:

“cumulative effect of this speaking and writing about the war [of Independence in Algeria] has resulted in a trivialization of the significance of torture as glossy pictures turn war into an orgiastic intellectual entertainment.”

Similarly, documentaries such as “Standard Operating Procedure” offer avid descriptions and images of torture. The documentary begins by informing us that American soldiers were so depressed and so low when they got to Abu Ghraib that they felt “already dead.”

In the book, Gourevitch and Morris ensure that we, their readers, understand that Abu Ghraib was an intolerable place that was constantly under mortar fire (although in 2003, no American soldier was killed from this). A combat unit, the 372nd regiment of reservists finds out that instead of going home they will be posted to guard duty at Abu Ghraib, something for which they are not trained.  Untrained, alienated, stressed, frustrated, and overcome by the climate, we are coached to understand that normal, wholesome American soldiers, each with their own dreams, soon fall apart in the hell that was Abu Ghraib.  The film and the book each begin with this equivalent to Marlow’s journey into the heart of Africa.

As I have shown elsewhere in the case of the violence of Western peacekeepers towards the populations they supposedly came to help, the savagery of the racial Other, and the savagery of the place of the racial Other become the reason why violence is authorized against them. As Hugh Ridley memorably put it recalling the themes of  colonial novels and the mind set of the masculine subjects who inhabit these fictional colonials worlds, “In Africa, who can be a saint.” The civilized man “loses” it in Africa on account of the dust and heat, as Canada concluded in its inquiry of the violence of Canadian peacekeepers towards Somalis.  In Africa, the soldier feels compelled to engage in violence anticipating the savagery of the racial Other. It is this narrative line, a combination of “Rumsfeld made me do it” and “in Iraq who could be a saint” that runs through the accounts of the Abu Ghraib soldiers, an account very much fostered by Morris and carefully installed  in the film and book.

What stands out the most about the narratives the Abu Ghraib soldiers offer to the cameras is the almost complete absence of moral conflict. The soldiers do not believe that they personally did anything wrong.  Instead, we see subjects who are intent on presenting themselves as victims.  Presumably asked by Morris (who does not appear) how they feel now, the soldiers display no shame, little interest in the impact of their actions, and an intense self-absorption. Sabrina Harmon appears puzzled by the question about what she could have done differently. She replies: “I don’t know what I could have done different” and as an after thought adds “I wouldn’t have joined the military. It’s just not worth it.”  In the interview quoted in the book, she expands on what she means:

“You always feel guilty thinking you could have changed something – or, I guess, dereliction of duty for not reporting something that went on, even though people did know.  I guess you could have went [sic] to somebody else. So I accept the dereliction of duty charge. Personally I accept that one. It would be nice just to put everything behind me. It sucks, but it’s a learning experience, I guess. It helps you grow, getting screwed over. I don’t know.”

The spark of remorse that leads Harmon to accept the dereliction of duty charge for not reporting the abuse is quickly put out by the predominant feeling of “getting screwed over.” Similarly, although he felt sorry for a prisoner who died in a bomb just as he was being released, Javal Davis remains most rueful about the loss of his dreams.  Davis offers the camera his final thought:

“A big chunk of my life is gone. I can never get it back.”

Jeremy Sivits is sorry that he couldn’t make his family proud. Megan Graner simply concludes:

“Life’s not fair, that’s for sure” and if we are in any doubt about whose life is not fair, it is quickly put to rest when, reflecting on her own life, she declares, “I’ve always known that.”

Lynndie England announces that she wouldn’t change a thing because she got a son out of it. For her, regret is centred around Charles Graner. Believing herself to have been victimized by Graner, Abu Ghraib has left England with one predominant feeling:

“Learn from your mistakes. I learned from mine.  It’s like I don’t need a man to survive. Forget ‘em…. It’s just being young and naïve.”

If self-pity runs like a stream through these narratives, the soldiers are clearly not sorry for what they did to Iraqis.  Their recollections reveal that little about the situation troubled them in the first place, other than their own personal discomfort, the discomfort of being in a savage place at a savage time. They work hard to make a moral distinction between humiliation and torture, believing nonetheless in their absolute right to engage in the former. As pro-torture advocates such as Michael Ignatieff have typically argued, if sexual humiliation, hooding and water-boarding do not inflict any lasting damage, these practices cannot be considered torture and are entirely morally defensible.

The journey into the heart of darkness, where torture is transformed into humiliation, is a gendered one. Both the book and the film begin with the story of Sabrina Harman as the epitome of feminine innocence defiled. Harman’s soft girlish voice reads from her letters to her wife, Kelly.  Faithful to the storyline of someone who descends into hell, Harmon writes of the first time that she saw a prisoner with underwear on his head, stripped naked and handcuffed to the rails with arms extended over the head in the Palestinian position, made famous by the Israelis for the extreme discomfort in which it places the prisoner. Like most of soldiers, Harman understood that the prisoner, a taxi driver was most likely innocent, something that did not stop her from engaging in humiliation and torture. She recalls for Kelly that at first she found the prisoner’s situation funny and initially laughed when someone “poked his dick.” Editorializing quickly, Harman writes: “Then it hit me that this was molestation.” Molestation, but not torture. Claiming that she knew that much that went on was wrong, she nonetheless participated and took pictures, apparently believing that the pictures would later serve as proof. At no time does it occur to Harman to try to stop the practices or even to complain about them. If she gives a thumbs-up or gleefully smiles for the camera, Harmon suggests that this is simply what she always did in front of a camera.

Morris and Gourevitch sympathetically portray the young girl who dreamed of becoming a forensic photographer. In Harman’s letters, the story of taking pictures for the purpose of documenting an abuse is undermined by her recounting of the casual details of life at Abu Ghraib where “we stripped prisoners and laughed at them; we degraded them but we didn’t hit them.” These casually inserted details of her direct participation in torture, practices that she clearly does not consider to be torture, take second place next to the accounts Harman gives of her kindness. She writes of the young boy who was covered in ants and whom she tried to help, and the general whose eyebrows were shaved and whom she tried to console for this humiliation. On camera she comments on the famous photograph of the prisoner who was made to believe that the electrodes attached to him were live wires and that he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box: “It would have been meaner if the electrodes were hooked up.” Gilligan, as this prisoner was nick-named, was never physically touched, Harman insists, puzzled by those who saw the photo and thought that it was torture.

The contrived and contradictory nature of Harman’s recollections give Gourevitch and Morris pause and they notice that she is working hard to construct herself as innocent:

“By the end of her outpourings she repositioned herself as an outsider at Abu Ghraib, an observer and recorder, shaking her head, and in this way she came clean with her wife.  In this way she preserved her sense of innocence.”

Noting  that Harman “imagined herself as producing an expose, but she did not pretend to be a whistle-blower-in waiting,” they can make no further sense of her performance.  Instead, they accept her explanations. When she acknowledges that the grin and the thumbs-up she offered to the camera in most of the photos “look bad” and suggested that this was simply how she always posed for photos, there is little in the book or the film to imagine that this might not be true.  Harmon’s narrative is indeed full of contradictions. Documenting abuse yet giving an unselfconscious account of her own involvement in various torture events, it is nonetheless clear that “she was as forgiving of her buddies as of herself.”

There is a strange structure to the soldiers’ narratives of ‘the first time I saw abuse.’ It is the naked detainees wearing women’s panties that shock, but not the repeated violence. Initially sure that what they were seeing was wrong, they soon participate in acts of abuse and describe their participation in various contradictory ways: the leaders made me do it; others did far worse; I just followed orders; the prisoners were ordinary innocent people; the prisoners were people who had happily blown us up; the prisoners had information that would save lives; the prisoners didn’t have information, and so on. No soldier takes responsibility for acts of humiliation and torture. If it is ever acknowledged that most of the people in Abu Ghraib were simply ordinary people, this does not give anyone pause to acknowledge that what they did was wrong.

Javal Davis knew from his first encounter with naked prisoners wearing women’s pink panties over their heads that “something’s not right here.” Describing his initial attempt to complain, he notes that the chain of command simply abandoned the rank and file, confirming that however they felt, they had to do the bidding of Military Intelligence. He grew numb but participated nevertheless, by his own and others’ accounts, often with enthusiasm.  He acknowledges that they would simply go and sweep up every single male “from kids to the local baker” and then set about humiliating them.  He soon determined what would work best, playing rap music and country music loudly and without cease in order to destabilize the prisoners. In his view what he participated in was not torture but humiliation.  “We don’t have photos of torture,” he states even though he believes that torture happened all the time.  The real torturers, he implies, got off.  Megan Ampuhl also insists that the photographs don’t show torture and goes further by maintaining that they in fact make things look worse that they were. “We softened them up,” Ampuhl casually explains. “We would burn them with a cigarette. We’d just do what they [Military Intelligence] wanted us to do. It didn’t seem weird; it was saving lives.” Other soldiers calmly describe their own role in water torture: “We turned on the showers, and wet the detainee until it was hard to breathe through the hoods.”
Alternatively excusing themselves on the grounds that they were simply following orders, and insisting that what happened was not torture or was in the interest of saving American lives, the soldiers speak casually of the horrors they were involved in, lamenting that the incidents for which they have been condemned were far more innocent than others they knew about. They tell of prisoners whom they were “humiliating” who were already dead; of being asked to help out and doing so in order to be “nice.”  Sabrina Harmon is able to draw diagrams in her letters home of how dogs are used on prisoners. Others announce their belief that most prisoners were ordinary people who were innocent yet they could recall soaking sandbags in hot sauce to be placed over a prisoner’s head because “these guys have info.” They were able to participate in the brutal beatings of prisoners and maintain at the same time that the most that ever happened was “a really, really bad case of humiliation.” As “helpers”, Anthony Diaz and Jeffery Frost describe the order to tie a prisoner in a higher stress position. They find out after some time that the prisoner they were allegedly softening up was already dead. “It kinda felt  bad.  I know I am not part of this but,” offers Diaz in the film, illustrating the acknowledgement of violence and disavowal of his participation of it in one breadth.

If what felt bad was when the prisoner died, it did not feel bad to spent days tying prisoners up into intolerable stress positions, stripping them naked, and turning on the showers for water torture. The mundane work of torture elicits little moral conflict.
The soldiers are not only forgiving of themselves and of each other for engaging in torture, but absorbed in the tragedy of what happened to them. Lynndie England, described as a girl who once looked like a boy and who enlisted at 17 in order to be able to attend college and to lift herself out of a life working at a chicken processing plant, is dismissive of the public who saw her holding the leash on a prisoner and called it abuse. “It was no big deal,” she observes, explaining that Charles Graner asked her to hold the leash for the photo.  Maintaining throughout that all she did was what she was told to do, England presents herself as a woman victimized by a man. “I’m in the brig because of a man,” she states flatly to the camera, explaining that women in the army either had to prove their equality to men or be controlled by them.  A man’s place, the army turned out to also be a place where “people wanted to mess with the prisoners.” Offering no comment on this state of affairs, England remains unrepentant as she describes her involvement in the scenes of sexual torture : “We didn’t kill ‘em, we didn’t cut their head off.” Unconsciously comparing herself to the barbaric enemy who kills and cuts off heads, England secures for herself a higher place on the civilizational scale.
If the soldiers seem unmoved by their acts of torture, those who bring us their story share this indifference to what was done to Iraqi bodies. Although Gourevitch and Morris write passionately that “the stain is ours” the stain is only torture as policy and the crimes of the upper levels.  Of the soldiers they conclude:

“Even as they sank into a routine of depravity, they showed by their picture taking that they did not accept it as normal. They never fully got with the program. Is it not to their credit that they were profoundly demoralized by their service in the netherworld?”

Inexperienced, untrained, under attack, and under orders to do wrong, the low-ranking reservist MPs who implemented the nefarious policy of the war on terror on the MI block of the Abu Ghraib hard site knew that what they were doing was immoral, and they knew that if it wasn’t illegal, it ought to be.  They knew that they had the right, and that it was their duty, to disobey an unlawful order to report it to their immediate superior; and if that failed – or if that superior was the source of the order — to keep reporting it on up the chain of command until they found satisfaction.

If they had the right to refuse to commit acts of torture, and this was surely their duty, why didn’t they do so and what do we think about them not having done so? These questions are answered in the film: they didn’t do so because it was hard to do so and we should forgive them.

The film and the book are both assembled so that the complicity of the lower ranks is a light one.  Tim Dugan, a civilian interrogator explains to us at the start that the rank and file soldiers were a “bunch of unprofessional schmucks that didn’t know their damn jobs, all thrown together, mixed up with a big-ass stick.” By the end of the film, he no longer holds this view, and we can guess that he now believes that torture was policy. Brent Pack, lead forensic examiner of the computer crime unit of the US Army who analyzed the thousands of photographs lends the full weight of his science to the diagnosis: the pictures depict several events of what was often “standard operating procedure.”  He classifies the acts of torture and humiliation clarifying that physical injury amounts to a criminal act, sexual humiliation is dereliction of duty, but most other practices are simply standard operating procedure. Agreeing with the other experts who are interviewed that the soldiers were mostly people in the wrong place at the wrong time, Pack feels sorriest for England. Lynndie was “just in love.” If the photos tell us anything, he implies, it is the story of a woman in love. Neither Lynndie England nor Sabrina Harman who writes so lovingly to her “wife” are presented as torturers. Although we have little on the two men serving the longest sentences (Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick), their stories too are ultimately presented as the stories of victims. Their country betrayed them, we are led to believe.
Perhaps the end point of the equivocation about the rank and file soldiers is best revealed in the many interviews Morris has given (some with Gourevitch) in which he explains what most concerned him about Abu Ghraib. Professing himself to be most interested in the role of the photos, Morris wonders about what they reveal and what they conceal. Often turning to Sabrina Harman as an example, he notes that it is tempting to conclude from the thumbs up and the smiles in the photo of herself with the dead, tortured Iraqi prisoner, that she participated in his death or at least approved of it. The smile is an uneasy one, Morris suggests, and Harman’s crime is nothing compared to the soldiers who actually murdered the prisoner. In this moment, we are invited to forget that while Harman did not murder prisoners, she did participate directly in moments of torture. Challenging his audience to answer the question “did Sabrina Harman commit a crime?”, it is clear that for Morris the answer is no. Admitting that she may not be “lilywhite” or “uncompromised,” we are invited to consider that she is not the culprit.

In the end, although he wished to interrogate complicity at the bottom rather than the top, and imagined himself making a film that did more than focus on the chain of command, we arrive in the same place. At no point does it really occupy Morris’s attention that American soldiers such as Sabrina Harman tortured Iraqis. The unchallenged assumption throughout, shared by Morris, Gourevitch and their subjects, is the idea that there is a valid reason to treat Iraqis as they were treated in Abu Ghraib prison by the rank and file soldiers, even if things did go a little wrong.

The Reviewers: “Frightened, disoriented men and women.”

With some of its plot devices rather obvious, it is surprising that reviewers find so little to critique in the work of Morris and Gourevitch. In a review of the book and the film published in The New York Review of Books,  Ian Baruma begins, as so many reviewers do, by reminding us of Susan Sontag’s argument that the torture photographs “were typical expressions of a brutalized popular American culture” but adds approvingly that Morris’s documentary “complicates matters.”  The complication is that the pictures don’t tell the whole story and may “even conceal more than they reveal.”  What they conceal is torture as policy and the practice of using untrained soldiers, among them those with a ‘bad boy’ reputation such as Charles Graner. Of the other soldiers who participated, Baruma only has kind things to say. Harman, in particular, draws his sympathy, as Morris intended. She is the person about whom her colleagues say that she wouldn’t hurt a fly.  We are reminded of her dream to become a forensic photographer.   For Baruma, Harman is simply telling the truth when she says that she took pictures in order to document abuses. She committed no crime, he insists, since the real crime lies in those who tortured a prisoner to death. England was simply in love and did whatever her man told her to do. The photos, Baruma concludes, were “fun and games” compared to the darker secret they hide. The most condemnation that Baruma offers is that everyone probably got a little “erotic frisson” from their participation in these acts. He recalls that Sontag may have been right about the pornographic nature of the encounter but lying at the heart of pornography and the Abu Ghraib encounter is the capacity to objectify and dehumanize, something that contemporary Abu Ghraib commentators such as Baruma seem not to notice.  Not surprisingly, any comparison between the soldiers of Abu Ghraib and the Nazis is rejected outright although it is interesting that reviewers such as Baruma feel compelled to deny the similarity.
Baruma’s response is a typical one. The Canadian reviewer Peter Goddard  also agrees that Lynndie England was merely goofing around for her boyfriend when she took part in the photo of “Gus,” the name given to the prisoner on a leash:

“The picture isn’t about Gus being dominated by England. It’s about England being dominated by Graner.”

Apparently buying England’s  gender defense that she wasn’t humiliating prisoners she was just trying to please Charles Graner, Goddard is able to sidestep that a prisoner was still in the end being humiliated by jailors who had considerable power over him. Graner’s interest in documenting the terrible conditions of his job, Harman’s wish to use photos to deflect her own humiliation at being a spectator at a demeaning ritual, all these are accepted at face value. Goddard concludes:

“The theatricality of the Abu Ghraib photos only adds to the shock of what was really happening there. It’s as if Graner and the rest of the picture-takers understood implicitly that they were in that awful place to play a role in this war fantasy.  So they did just that, with great big smiles on their faces.”

One is struck by the extent to which reviewers are forgiving of the soldiers. They emphasize their “uncertainty and confusion” as well as their “posing and posturing.”  As Michael S Roth (President of Wesleyan University) writes, through the soldiers we are able to grasp the “slapdash ineptitude” and the incoherence of the war itself.”    In his review , Michael Chaiken takes Morris to task for “the heavy-handed reliance on re-creations to shock the audience into recognizing the magnitude of the horrors being recounted.” Chaiken’s argument is that the recreations “divert attention from that for which there is no substitute: the faces of those frightened, disoriented men and women tearfully coming to terms with historical forces of which they too are hapless victims.” Bemoaning that we suffer a failure of empathy and imagination when we are overly exposed to images of horror (as Susan Sontag argued), there is little doubt who our empathy is supposed to be for – the soldiers and not their Iraqi victims.
As many reviewers agree, Morris is asking us to think about the relationship between the photos and truth.  As Cynthia Fuchs put it:

“the movie is more deliberately and (for lack of a better term) more poetically invested in how the crimes were defined by the images.”

Fuchs notices Lynndie England’s “oddly detached” stance as she explains that the problem was that she was a woman in a man’s world and she reminds us that England’s “seeming lack of a perspective becomes a perspective.”  Again, however, the lack of perspective that is so remarkable is simply evidence of the degree to which these practices were policy. The pictures assembled into a timeline by Pack don’t tell us about the “stunning policy-making that determined that sequence.” For Fuchs as for all the other reviewers, the real story lies elsewhere. It does not lie with the strange detachment that England and others reveal to this day except in so far as the detachment confirms that they too were merely hapless victims of a corrupt leadership.

The reviewer for the World Socialist Website, Joanne Laurier, is the only one to suggest that Morris seems to display “an unwillingness to see how far things have gone,” to acknowledge, that is, that America “terrorized and intimidated an entire population.” But how terror and intimidation is performed by individuals who continue to be feel blameless and who are apparently without remorse, is not something any reviewers have pursued. Instead, they have sought redemption for the rank and file, and, by extension, for all Americans.

Conclusion: Embodying (White Supremacy and) Empire

Torture has what we might regard as an almost built-in connection to race. Quite simply, torture is permissible against those whom we have evicted from personhood even as torture itself guarantees this outcome. Nothing committed against homo sacer can be regarded as a crime, comments Agamben, since the law has determined that the rule of law does not apply.  Torture’s connection to two levels of humanity can thus be located in law.  Whether “enemy combatants”  or inhabitants of a refugee camp, the legal distinction that marks who enjoys the rule of law and who does not, often thinly disguises that the camp’s inmates are already regarded as a lower form of humanity. Lasreq comments for Algeria that the French classified Algerians as “French Muslims” and as “protected subjects,” the latter an especially ironic moniker given that those in this category were marked as outside the law’s protection. The Bush administration produced Arabs/Muslims in a state of exception when the rule of law could be suspended in their case.

Drawing on Elaine Scarry’s argument that torture is work mediated by the labour of “civilization,” Lasreg notes that “torture finds justification in the alleged barbarity of the enemy.” In Algeria, the French would often set up torture centres in old wine storehouse. Prisoners would often die from the sulphuric gases from the remnants of fermented alcohol but there would be the added bonus of “simply allowing alcohol, the object of a Muslim taboo, to work its invisible magic on the Muslim body.” We should not, therefore, be surprised that torture talk and culture talk merge so often. Cultural difference, the enemy’s innate barbarism, is an important element in the eviction of the tortured from the rule of law, and thus from humanity. The bikini panties wrapped so diligently around the heads of the prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib was a lesson intended for the torturer more so than the tortured, reaffirming the former’s cultural superiority and the latter as a lower form of humanity.
Post-torture discussions create community as much as torture itself does, continuing racial terror through narrative. In these narratives, torture is not torture at all but an interrogations method gone awry, or soldiers carried away at a frat party.  Culture talk, or in its absence simply an outright dehumanization of Iraqis, undoubtedly helps Americans to become reconciled to having tortured. President Obama’s statement that Americans don’t torture and President Bush’s may in the end come to mean the same thing when we consider that not only have officials not been prosecuted for their role in torture, but those of the lower ranks who have been charged remain for the most part unrepentant and socially embraced. Their refusal to take responsibility and the public forgiving of their acts reminds those of us who share a colour, religion or region with the tortured, that our lives are similarly valued. The femininity of the torturers, so celebrated by filmmakers and reviewers alike, strike terror in the hearts of anyone who watched and waited for an acknowledgement of the violence done to Iraqis.

Postscript: “I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious.”

I began this series of posts with a story of cultural difference and I would like to end with one. On May 4, 2008, an intriguing story appeared in the Los Angeles Times. “Blackwater shooting highlights a U.S., Iraq culture clash.” Blackwater workers killed 17 Iraqis, including the son of an Iraqi man Abdul Razzaq in what the Iraqis called a massacre and Blackwater a situation that arose because their workers feared for their lives. U.S. officials were investigating the shooting but in the meantime they attempted to provide monetary compensation to Mr. Razzaq who refused it.  The reporters offer their analysis of this strange impasse:
Far from bringing justice and closure, the investigations underline the frictions between Americans and Iraqis that have plagued the five-year U.S. presence. The shooting and its aftermath show the deep disconnect between the American legal process and the traditional culture of Iraq, between the courtroom and the tribal diwan. U.S. officials painstakingly examine evidence and laws while attempting to satisfy victims’ claims through cash compensation. But traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all. If a man kills or badly injures someone in an accident, both families convene a tribal summit.  The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.
“Our system is so different from theirs,” said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. “An honor settlement has to be both financial and it has to have the right symbolism. We would never accept their way of doing things, and they don’t accept ours.” Framed as a culture clash, the article ends with the voice of another victim, Baraa Sadoon Ismail, 29, a father of two who was severely injured in the gunfire who is reported as “miffed” when asked whether he planned to seek compensation. “I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious,” explained Haitham Rubaie, a physician who lost his physician wife and medical student son and who rebuffed efforts at compensation (offered in the form of a donation to an orphanage). “No amount of money”, he added “will sweep this under the rug.”

It seems certain that the United States really will never accept this way of doing things, this quaint cultural way of acknowledging that Iraqi life is precious and that fathers whose wives and children have been blown to bits require a meaningful apology. Our system is indeed different from theirs.  We are, I suggest, neither post torture nor post empire nor post racial. Here, cultural explanations reveal the perniciousness of an implicity white Western refusal to grant that Iraqi life is precious.

~ Sociologist Sherene Razack, (U of Toronto), and is the author of many articles and books, including:  “How Is White Supremacy Embodied? Sexualized Racial Violence at Abu Ghraib” (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law – Volume 17, Number 2, 2005, pp. 341-363) Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism, (University of Toronto Press, 2004) and Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, (University of Toronto Press, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2006).

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