Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Navel Gazing, Torture and Other Boring Trivialities

Remember Abu Ghraib? That infamous prison near Baghdad where people were tortured? Of course you do. It's a memory that will remain part of the Western political lexicon for generations, long after its context has become a vague blur of American troops in a faraway land engaged in an incomprehensible effort to achieve an indefensible goal. The My Lai of the early 21st century, if you wish.

No, not that Abu Ghraib. I was asking about the one where Iraqis tortured Iraqis to death, routinely and in large numbers. The one most people in the West have already forgotten, if they ever knew.

I once heard Alan Dershowitz comment that Israeli human rights organizations are unique in that they, and they alone, have the moral right if they so wish to hold their own society to a higher standard than anyone else aspires to, because it's their society. How they go about doing this is a moot subject I'm not addressing this morning, but if you accept his logic, then Americans have some legitimacy in holding the actions of their soldiers and policemen to higher standards. The fact that the Iraqi practice of torture was infinitely worse than any American practice ever was, seen in this perspective, is less significant than the fact that they were American. The Glenn Greenwalds and Andrew Sullivans are Americans, and care about the morality of American agents.

Fair enough. A bit narrow minded, though; parochial. Such an understanding of the world generates the very peculiar conceit that American crimes are unusually evil, when in fact they're demonstrably sophomoric on the scale of nastiness people routinely inflict on each other. But then, moral equivalence is generally not an activity for the intellectually honest.

There's a pragmatic problem, however, of the kind people die from, which is that as the Americans pull out of Iraq, the Iraqis may be reverting to form.

Old habits from Saddam Hussein’s era are becoming familiar again. Torture
is routine in government detention centres. “Things are bad and getting worse,
even by regional standards,” says Samer Muscati, who works for Human Rights
Watch, a New York-based lobby. His outfit reports that, with American oversight
gone (albeit that the Americans committed their own shameful abuses in such
places as Abu Ghraib prison), Iraqi police and security people are again pulling
out fingernails and beating detainees, even those who have already made
confessions. A limping former prison inmate tells how he realised, after a bout
of torture in a government ministry that lasted for five days, that he had been
relatively lucky. When he was reunited with fellow prisoners, he said he saw
that many had lost limbs and organs.

It's that direct connection that ought to disturb: As the Americans leave, the torture ramps up and freedoms are restricted. Americans can claim they owe little to Africans murdering Africans in jungles (see previous post), but the emerging regime in Iraq is emerging from an American intervention, and whether you like it or not, what happens in Iraq impacts on the US (and Europe, and elsewhere). This is where the naval gazing sanctimony and lazy (im)moral refusal to make distinctions between gradations of evil nor act upon them slip from unpleasant intellectual omissions to life-endangering callousness.

On a different topic, it is interesting that some societies figure out how to live in reasonably free societies with flaws, while others are good only at the flaws part. Sadly, when it comes to the real world, we're not all alike.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

I with much of this post, but don't i think it's ok for a society to hold itself to standards higher than that which it holds other societies to. Which is why, as an American, what happened in Abu Ghraib, and is happening in Abu Ghraib bother me.

As I learned growing up, there are are things that we do that are more valenced because they are a "chillul hashem" or a "kidush hashem".

To me, its a similar thought here.