In the ongoing controversy over treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. detention centers including Guantanamo, little attention has been given to the use of humiliation as a technique of interrogation. It has taken on an unprecedented role in Iraqi and other detention centers. While our military and political leaders seem to want to constrain its form to that of “sexual” humiliation, I would argue that the humiliation used was, in fact, a much larger and more egregious form of cultural, ethnic and religious abasement; practices we never thought our country would be engaged in.
Humiliation has been extremely destructive to many individual detainees, particularly the innocent ones, and it has been even more harmful in its mockery and defamation of a broad range of Iraqi, Arabic and Muslim values. The ongoing revelations concerning Abu Ghraib call into question our own reputation as a moral, just and sensitive society. We have deeply offended a large segment of the world’s population. Additionally, what is highly doubtful is that a group of military reserve MPs, on their own, could have stumbled upon the particular techniques and acts most insulting and hateful to Iraqis and Muslims, in order to “soften them up” for subsequent interrogation.
Why was woman’s underwear often placed over a prisoner’s head (in Guantanamo as well as Abu Ghraib), something the average American male would have found innocuous or even amusing? How did this band of rogue MPs sense the disgrace it would bring to Iraqi males? Nakedness and nakedness in the presence of others, particularly women, was not a technique for interrogation in other wars, or countries, why here? How did the guards know to do this?
Once the detainees were naked, did forced physical contact, piling bodies and simulated or actual sex acts suggest themselves to the guards or were they part of a roster of potentially humiliating treatments developed as a matter of course by top-level intelligence strategists in the chain of command? Who originated the practices of forced consumption of pork and alcohol and shaving facial hair and confrontation with dogs, of which Iraqis are profoundly fearful?
American culture is pervaded with practices of humiliation, both benign and harmful, but is that enough to have prepared ordinary GIs, even those with prior prison guard experience, to make up and use such culturally specific abuses? Whose idea was it to photograph the “disgusting” events—as our political leaders called them? If the situations depicted were not so sacrilegious and reviling, what would be the harm of the photographs, even with the threat of disclosing them to families and friends? Did the MPs have the sophistication to know that picturing the naked body itself is taboo in the Muslim world? These do not seem to be random “sadistic” acts but rather carefully designed intelligence directives.
One detainee subjected to Abu Ghraib style humiliation said he could not possibly return to his family or society. Do we have any sense of his degree of shame? Rush Limbaugh said the atrocities were equivalent to little more than a fraternity prank. A U.S. Army captain at the prison said he saw no torture there, only a lot of nakedness. Our leaders still seem to be in denial about the amount of damage that our use of humiliation has done to our standing in the Arab world. They have apologized to the detainees, their families, some other Iraqis and the king of Jordan; but an overall admission of our guilt and insensitivity to Muslim and Arabic peoples is needed before we can recover some of our decency and reputation for fairness and justice.
However culpable they may be, scapegoating a few reservists, and perhaps an MI officer or two by courts martial and bulldozing the Abu Ghraib prison will not make this scandal go away. It suffuses the military chain of command and the political leadership of the country. Searching for who gave orders or directives or permissions, or redefined the nature of torture, will not change what has been revealed, and that is the much larger problem of our basic attitudes toward and misunderstandings of the Arab world.