American Images

In late April 2004, the news that American soldiers had abused detainees at Abu Ghraib prison arrived to the public in a string of shocking photos. The images that exposed the torture of prisoners were brutal and strange—and they were memorable, resistant to amnesia. On May 24, President Bush made a somber address about the news. He called the abuse “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values”—seedless, atypical, un-American. The story of our response to torture at Abu Ghraib is also the story of our unbelief in that declaration.

Many commentators argued that the torture was actually distinctly American—that what the photos gave us was precisely an insight into American values. Mark Danner writes, “what Americans did at Abu Ghraib was ultimately tied to what they had been doing in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere in the ‘war on terror’—and, finally, to what officials had been deciding in Washington.” And perhaps the most compelling evidence that Abu Ghraib was a collective, not an individual, breakdown is spelled out by Seymour Hersh in his May 2004 New Yorker piece analyzing the classified report by Major General Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Taguba insisted that “a huge leadership failure” was responsible for the crimes; he uses the words “systematic” and “systemic,” and though the reports have shortcomings, they powerfully deny Bush’s claim that Abu Ghraib was the work of a “few bad apples.”

But when journalists said that Abu Ghraib was specifically American, they weren’t suggesting that officials at every level of government would be implicated in the abuses. They believed that the photos made legible and material the values that are implicit all around us in American society. Susan Sontag’s seminal essay in the New York Times Magazine argued that our video game culture had licensed the soldiers’ sense of brutalized fun and exhibitionism; in the Village Voice, George Smith made a parallel argument about Abu Ghraib and reality TV. Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute called the scandal the “’Perfect Storm’ of American cultural depravity,” and suggested that we could avert future Abu Ghraibs by abolishing sex education, outlawing same-sex marriage and banishing Howard Stern.

There is a strange vacancy in the story that points fingers at cultural decline. This story never really describes guilt or the guilty, but instead circumscribes it: guilt is the absent center of the argument, always discussed and pointed to, but never really encountered. It is similar to the previous ones: the official narrative of “bad apples,” the story of negligent actors in the government and military, and the account that holds reality TV responsible all tend to be a way of blaming the “them” within “us,” accusing Lynndie England and Charles Graner, Bush and Rumsfeld, or Hollywood, not “us.” The conviction that the crimes were “American” suffered from a logical stutter because of the difficulty of locating where or who we are in “American”: an uncertainty about whether Americanness is in individual soldiers, state actors, a side of media culture, or whether it is a quality hung in suspense between all of these things. What these polemics have in common is the way they accomplish a looking-away from the suffering of the victims, while putting the suffering’s authors in a place of righteousness and victimization. If, as Bush says, soldiers at Abu Ghraib “dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” it might properly be said that “we” are the dishonored victims. And so the torturers are exiled from “our” country, “our” values—in making them aliens, we make ourselves aliens to complicity. We, narrating these stories of blame, remain curiously guiltless.

But blamelessness seems impossible when we look at the photographs and what they imply about their audience. Lynndie England points at a prisoner’s genitals in one snapshot; she and Charles Graner pose in front of a pyramid of naked bodies in another. In both photos, they look directly at the camera with smiles that presume an approving audience. It may be worth noting that German soldiers in WWII photographed the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims were exceedingly rare. As Susan Sontag pointed out, the shots may be more comparable to some of the photos of black lynching victims taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show small-town Americans grinning beside the victim’s dangling body. Many of these pictures were made into postcards; like the Abu Ghraib photos, they were souvenirs which assumed an audience, and so implicated the audience in guilt.

The act of reading Americanness into the Abu Ghraib scandal smacks of a kind of psychoanalysis. Like we might read a dream or a poem, we analyze the crime as the product or symptom of the author’s unconscious and the discourses of the time in which it was produced—and as if it were an alibi, covering something up. James Wood describes the psychoanalytic reading of a poem as detective work where we look for moments when “it is sweating,” showing the stresses of repression. What’s repressed is what the poem or dream or torture is really about (Americanness), more deeply than whatever it purports to be (the work of a few bad apples). It is very appropriate, then, that Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek made one of the most influential public analyses of Abu Ghraib. He quotes the now-famous February 2003 Defense briefing during which Donald Rumsfeld said, “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Rumsfeld thought the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” the threats from Saddam that hadn’t been foreseen. Žižek notes that Rumsfeld forgot a crucial item: the “unknown knowns,” the things we do not know that we know. For Žižek, the “unknown knowns” are precisely the Freudian unconscious, what Lacan called the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”—and these unknown knowns are exactly what we read for when we examine torture and see cultural degradation or governmental breakdown.

The “unknown knowns” explain how and why some Americans have tried to justify or diminish the torture. Rush Limbaugh declared, “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort … You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release?” Responding to questions about how his policies contributed to the abuse, Rumsfeld asked, “Does it rank up there with chopping someone’s head off on television? It doesn’t.” Žižek argues that these justifications are underwritten by the belief that the Abu Ghraib prisoners belonged to a “living dead.” Since they were the targets of legitimate US bombings, the fact that they were even alive to be tortured was accidental. One cannot condemn their fate when they were taken prisoners after combat—whatever their situation, it is better, less severe, than being dead. They are the living dead whose right to live has been forfeited because they were legitimate targets of bombings. They have become, Žižek says, what philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, those who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, their lives no longer count. Importantly, Žižek does not locate “us” in specific deviant people or an amorphous media setting; instead, he makes a cultural analysis through American law—a crucial approach, given that Abu Ghraib happened in the context of the Bush Administration’s illegalization of prisoners as “unlawful combatants.” The detainees, allegedly without rights under the Geneva Convention, become a perfect example of the “living dead.” And if they are located in the space “between the two deaths”—legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status), though biologically still alive—then the US authorities that treat them this way are in an in-between legal status that forms homo sacer’s counterpart. They act as a legal power, but their acts are no longer constrained by the law; they operate in a boundless space that is nonetheless within the law’s domain. Homo sacer is Žižek’s interpretation of Abu Ghraib as an American crime, with Iraqi prisoners “effectively being initiated into American culture: they were getting a taste of the obscenity that counterpoints the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom.” Žižek points to Abu Ghraib as an important moment of American sweating.

Unmistakably Pornographic It is not always remembered that the public discovery of the Abu Ghraib images was shadowed by the revelation of another set of shocking photos. In May 2004, the BBC reported that photos showing two Iraqi women, both wearing traditional black robes and being raped at gunpoint by men wearing US army uniforms, were circulating on Arabic-language websites. The BBC said, “These pictures do not seem genuine: the uniforms do not seem right ... But the damage has been done.” The photos may have come from the hardcore porn site IraqBabes, which offered “exclusive shocking sex in war videos” featuring “real soldiers” and “Iraq women.” While commercial porn was being mistaken for actual torture, the photos of real torture at Abu Ghraib were being equated with porn. The day US lawmakers viewed the roughly 1,800 still photos and a number of videos from Abu Ghraib, CBS News reported that the images “amounted to hardcore porn.” Much of the abuse is obviously sexual—including Iraqi men forced to masturbate and Iraqi women commanded to expose their breasts—and was recorded with the harsh amateurish lighting of internet porn. And the torture pictures were found in a collection of images that included more conventional pornography: the Abu Ghraib guards used digital cameras to record not just the sexual torture of the prisoners, but also American soldiers having sex with each other, literally making homemade porn.

What should we make of this: porn that looks like actual torture, actual torture that looks like porn? A few commentators argued that the similarity to porn undercut claims of torture; Rush Limbaugh wondered what the big deal was, since the photos “[looked] like standard good old American pornography.” Frank Rich ridiculed discussion of the resemblance in the New York Times, scornfully rejecting the likening of “wartime atrocities” to “an entertainment industry that, however deplorable to Islam, has more fans in our Christian country than Major League Baseball.” But it’s exactly the proliferation of porn in Rich’s “Christian country” that makes the resemblance to porn close to undeniable. It is because of our acquaintance with porn that we can identify the pornographic in the torture photos. It’s a similarity that has no need for the suspicious reading in a psychoanalytic approach—reading a sexual subtext is unnecessary when the naked male bodies simulating oral sex and bare backs supporting bare asses are there for us to see.

Between Limbaugh’s dismissal of torture as mere porn and Rich’s dismissal of the comparison to porn were more ambivalent responses. Many journalists didn’t seem to know what to do with the resemblance, and most articles simply pointed out the similarity as a disturbing feature of the crime—perhaps because the torture was also strikingly unpornographic in some important ways. What makes pornography pornographic, after all, is not just the sex but our licensing of the sex; the nature of porn is knotted to the liberal attitude that is tolerant, even self-congratulatory, about it. Porn is a fiction hinged on consent and the freedom of consenting adults.

The authentic forced sex torture at Abu Ghraib, then, can be intolerable to a sensibility so invested in consensual fictions. Even when the truth of Abu Ghraib is filtered back through the explicitly fictional—Canadian novelist Nancy Huston’s new book, Fault Lines, features a little boy who’s aroused by the Abu Ghraib images—the real torture is hard to take. For the English translation of the novel, especially for the American market, Huston was asked to cut scenes of the character masturbating in his bedroom, at his parents’ computer, and in church while imagining scenes of carnage and sexual violence from the Iraq war.

And surely the images of Abu Ghraib, too, are violent, not only because of their proximity to violent torture but because they result from a particular act of torture—the taking of the picture itself. Photography is instrumental, not incidental, and the documentation that is part of porn’s pleasure becomes in the Abu Ghraib photos a continuation of the torture, working, in Mark Danner’s words, as a “shame multiplier.” But again, this principle, doubly significant, can be turned back on the torturers; after all, it is not only the victims, but also the criminals, who are documented. In the famous photograph of Lynndie England leading a prisoner by a leash, you can see on her face, too, the inscription of subjection.

A History of Shame “[T]hey’re in a prison where they’re being softened up for interrogation. And we hear that the most humiliating thing you can do is make one Arab male disrobe in front of another … and especially if you put a woman in front of them and then spread those pictures around the Arab world …Maybe they’re gonna think we are serious. Maybe they’re gonna think we mean it this time. Maybe they’re gonna think we’re not gonna kowtow to them. Maybe the people who ordered this are pretty smart … Nobody got physically injured. But boy there was a lot of humiliation of people who are trying to kill us—in ways they hold dear. Sounds pretty effective to me if you look at us in the right context.” —Rush Limbaugh, The Rush Limbaugh Show, May 6, 2004.

“The Arab military establishment’s ineffectiveness in the past century has never been a matter of lack of courage or intelligence. Rather, it has been a consequence of a pervasive cultural and political environment that stifles the development of initiative, independent thinking, and innovation. This has been commented on by a number of Middle East specialists, both Arab and non-Arab, but none explains it as well as Patai, who suggests that Arabs conform not to an individualistic, inner-directed standard but rather to a standard established and maintained rigidly within Arab society.” —from the introduction to a 2001 edition of Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, by Norvell B. De Atkine, director of Middle East Studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg

The Arab Mind, first published in 1973, has a long pedigree of disavowal in Middle Eastern Studies. Edward Said even attacked Patai in a stinging chapter about “contemporary Orientalists” in Orientalism. But the book emerged, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in May 2004, as the “bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” The book was frequently cited when the notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. In their discussions, Hersh’s source said, two themes emerged: “one, that Arabs only understand force, and two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

According to the story given by Hersh’s source, pro-war neoconservatives approached the subject of Arab sexuality as cultured despisers. And they reached this perspective after reading a book that explains, among other things, that Western societies suffer from guilt because their individuals have a conscience, while Arab societies suffer from “shame”; that sex, while always on the Arab mind, is in practice brutally repressed by social control that even forbids masturbation; and that Arabs are highly anxious about love between men—“the role of the passive homosexual,” especially, is “extremely degrading and shameful.” Some of these assumptions are echoed very precisely in the Abu Ghraib photos. Guards coerced prisoners into masturbation and forced male detainees into simulating oral sex with one another because it was assumed that these were especially Arab punishments. But the move in thought that’s needed to reject Arab (therefore, irrational, unreasoning, backward) sexual repression and sanction American (enlightened, reasonable, civilized) sexual liberation is strangely circular. The failure of Patai’s sexual sociology and of American cultural assumptions about Arabs—the way in which they reveal little about Arab prejudice, but much about American prejudice—are very visible in the epistemic contradictions that underlie the torture.

Take the way in which the Abu Ghraib photos and reports bitterly parody the assumptions of The Arab Mind. Why would military officers use a book painting Arabs as ineffective and unorganized to keep them in such brutal confinement? If Arabs are irrational and emotional, why is it the American soldiers who need “emotional release,” as Limbaugh calls it, through torture? The contradictory racial logic of beliefs about Arab sexuality is one of the subjects of Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs, which discusses how Arab intellectual production has historically responded to Western moralities that alternately see Arabs as sexually repressed and decadent. Massad singles out an argument about Arab “men’s love for boys” as especially important in this intellectual history—the imagining of a decadent sexual Arab past with male-male love at its corrupt center has powerfully shaped the historiography of Arab sexuality. At Abu Ghraib, “men’s love for boys” united with assumptions about Arab backwardness in a cruel doubling where American officers, in sexually abusing detainees, participated in “Arab” sex even as they rejected “Arab” repression. The assumption was that Arab men especially hate being touched by other men, for instance; but torturers ironically gave male prisoners the “pleasure” they are said to enjoy by Orientalist scholarship. As in the writing of “RAPEIST” [sic] on the leg of one of the prisoners, the torturers become what they disavow, even as they blame the victim for the crime of the perpetrator.

It’s striking that even while individual prisoners are generalized into “Arabs” by American assumptions, this generalizing impulse falters at a kind of universalism. Isn’t it obvious that one does not have to be an Arab to find it degrading to be forced into masturbating publicly, into having sex with other prisoners? The narrative of cultural humiliation obscures the suffering of individuals, emphasizing group anxiety—quite the opposite, then, of testimony. But as Joseph Slaughter has suggested, human rights “guarantee the liberty of the subject to speak and, more specifically, to speak freely.” That a subject should be able to narrate his or her experience—testify—is axiomatic to human rights thinking. It is one of the paradoxes of Abu Ghraib that the prisoner abuse enacts a set of cultural assumptions that fly in the face of the “Western” individual ability to speak so crucial to human rights, even while practiced during a war whose very mission is to modernize, democratize—Westernize. Abu Ghraib is an important failure in this mission, pointing out how it is undermined by the very assumptions at its heart, and returning us to the crushing and caressing conviction that Abu Ghraib was an American crime. When the International Center of Photography exhibited the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004, it seemed to have some insight into the extent to which the torture was one of Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns”: distinctly American but undermining to ideals about American liberalism. The walk to the display was a descent from American optimism to the objectionable truth that is its counterpart: Visitors looking for the Abu Ghraib photos had to pass by more conspicuous exhibits first, and the shots weren’t displayed next to other images of the Iraq war or of Arabs. They were shown behind exultant photos of the John F. Kennedy presidency.