Demolish Abu Ghraib

by John Q on May 2, 2004

It is hard to overestimate the damage that has been done, not only to the US occupation of Iraq but to the cause of democracy and civilisation as a whole by the exposure of torture and sexual humilation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, formerly used for the same purposes, though of course on a much more brutal and extensive scale, by Saddam Hussein[1]. If these pictures had been staged by the Al Qaeda propaganda department they could scarcely have been better selected to inflame Arab and Muslim opinion against the West, combining as they do the standard images of torture with scenes specially designed to show the determination of the West to humiliate Muslim men in every way possible.

Update 05/04. There is more on this, and on the symbolism of US occupiers living in Saddam’s palace over at Whiskey Bar, where Billmon notes a similar proposal by Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese journalist. See also Eccentricity

It goes without saying that those directly involved, or who knew what was going on and failed to act, should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. In addition, those in the chain of command whose lapses contributed to the commission of these crimes should be dismissed out of hand. It seems clear that this latter class must include nearly all those involved in organising the policy of detention without trial, and particularly those involved in the interrogation of prisoners – scenes like these could not occur if the general practices of the prison were not already violent and degrading[2]. But these steps, necessary as they are, will do little more than to prevent the further aggravation of the damage that would be done if these crimes were seen to be condoned in any way, or if those prosecuted are seen as merely disposable scapegoats (a view those in the immediate firing line are already pushing hard)

Only a response on a dramatic scale has any hope of significantly reducing the damage. My suggestion[3] is that the Administration should immediately evacuate and demolish this awful place, and should announce that, before June 30, all those detained by the CPA will either be released or charged with a criminal offence, and, further, that anyone detained after that date will be brought before an Iraqi court. It might be useful to propose a memorial for those who died there and in similar places, though the design and construction should be left to an Iraqi governent.

Of course, this will mean releasing many people who are either insurgents themselves or have given aid and comfort to the insurgents. And, of course, the Iraqi court system is far from satisfactory. But the policy of detention has created far more insurgents than it has captured, as have the raids and searches associated with it. And if Iraqi judges are good enough to produce an arrest warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr, they’re good enough to deal with ordinary Iraqis caught up in military raids,

fn1. I say “of course”, but even the most charitably disposed commentators in the Arab/Muslim world are unlikely to concede so much. The most favorable view that Arabs and other Muslims are likely to hear is that the Americans are no different from Saddam, neither better nor worse.

fn2. Just after writing this, I came across this NYT report which seems to confirm it.

fn3. Not mine alone, I’m happy to say. As pointed out in the comments thread, Scorpio at Eccentricity made the same suggestion, a couple of days before me. Let’s hope this idea has also occurred to someone with the will and capacity to implement it.



be 05.02.04 at 11:00 am

Nice post..

it was very sad to see..them disgusting pictures..


Elaine Supkis 05.02.04 at 11:39 am

We are no different from Saddam.

And we will have to pay repartaions for our invasion of Iraq, just like Saddam had to pay for Kuwait. And until America ceases all WMD activities, we should be put under a punishing embargo…and then invaded and have our dictator arrested!

This won’t happen to us…yet. But we are going down in history as one of the more shameful government structures, more and more akin to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.


Andrew Boucher 05.02.04 at 1:56 pm

“We are no different from Saddam.”

Well speak for yourself, Elaine.


Andrew Boucher 05.02.04 at 1:59 pm

By the way, I think John’s idea is a good one. (I presume the Iraqis themselves would be for the demolishing.)


Phill 05.02.04 at 2:52 pm

“This is Halliburton Time.”

Demolish the prison might be a start, signing on to the International Criminal court would be a better move.

The US attempts to destroy the ICC are going to be seen in the Arab world as sending a message to the US troops that they can do anything they choose.


LiL 05.02.04 at 4:26 pm

Well said.

There’s only one thing I take issue with: your first sentence says it’s the “exposure of torture and sexual humilation of Iraqi prisoners” that did the damage to the cause of democracy. I think the esposure of these acts, if anything, is a sign of democracy actually working. In a dictatorship no news of such acts is ever splashed across news media, or open for debate in forums such as this one.

Granted, this distinction will, at this moment, be lost on an Iraqi citizen rightfully outraged by the hypocrisy of the occupying (oops, liberating) U.S. forces. Even if the freedom to be outraged and say/write/broadcast so is very important here. And this is a distinction that, in the case of the Nightline broadcast, or Hillary Clinton giving interviews in the Arab media appears lost on the local practitioners of free speech as well.

Of course it would be better if U.S. military leaders were above behaving like the military leaders of dictatorships. However, I would not underestimate the importance of the fact that they are being exposed in the media of their home country, and though the torture of a single person is much more than should have happened, decade upon decade filled with such torture has not yet passed – and these military leaders are being held accountable (we don’t know to what extent yet – and yes, there’s room for cynicism here) for what they’ve done.


John Isbell 05.02.04 at 4:37 pm

Great, startling suggestion. It would have a real impact, both on the Muslim world and on the rest of the planet (which I thiink deserves a mention). I can readily imagine debates looming in Coalition parliaments resulting in them pulling their troops out. Then they will wash them off at the airport.


LiL 05.02.04 at 5:29 pm

john (isbell) – if you’re referring to my comment, I’m not really sure how what I said is a suggestion… I would have classed it under opinion, describing things that I believe are and will be regardless of what I may take upon me to suggest. But here’s a suggestion anyway: I’d caution against conflating a government with the people it claims to govern. Think, for an example, of what percentage of people living in America are represented by Bush. The actual percentage of the applicable census figure is what I mean. It’s the debate of the people I’m trying to point out, which is messy, inaccurate and does not always have the effect those of us who believe know better than the humdrum masses of uneducated humanity would desire. And, sadly, the only way people appear not to want to shoot each other is if they’re allowed to make their mistaken interpretations. Again, see Eastern Europe for an example of this. By which I mean those countries, for the most part, which have just become part of the EU. (Sticking to what I know best, again.) Politicians have their own special discourse which is hard to track down… Here’s where the media comes in (ideally, anyway, and in all its various forms, right down to blogging.) I would not dismiss the importance the media played in bringing about social and political revolution in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I know people have grown cynical of this fact, but please recall the seige of Romanian television broadcast stations on Christmas Eve of 1989 as the crucial act that sealed the fate of a certain dictator. Yes, mess followed afterwards. You can’t save people (by which I mean the people, not the governments) the trouble of working it ouf for themselves – that was, to my mind, the hardest and most painful lesson of the communist experiment. Frankly, it can’t be dismissed as “not a good idea” or “yeah, that’ll have the desired effect on furthering the cause of democracy.” That sort of thing has often been said before and (to stick to what I know the most about) the people who said it not infrequently turned out to be the former dictators of Eastern European countries.


msg 05.02.04 at 8:29 pm


“In a dictatorship no news of such acts is ever splashed across news media”

Not internally, not in a self-examining way, but as propaganda, yes, sure it is.
To show the barbarity of the enemy, yes.
There’s something in me that’s resisting this outcry. Maybe it’s the personal nature of it.
I had to create some pictures myself, no one showed them to me – the hundreds of men, women, and children, dead in Falujah in one weekend.
What people seem outraged about in Abu Ghraib is that they’ve been forced to look at this sadistic carnival, and to admit it’s been happening all along.
There have been stories – admittedly not on Fox or CNN – of Humvees attacked, soldiers retaliating, firing randomly into a crowd and killing children; stories that wash in and out on the daily tide of news. But they’re less important than this.
Is it the sex?
It is I think.
The sex, and the pleasure taken in the humiliation. The intent to degrade.
Where simply killing a few hundred sons and daughters and husbands and wives, in a couple of days, is more civilized somehow. No sex in the rockets and bombs.
It’s a good sign that people are outraged by this, it means we’re not completely lost in depravity.
But ten thousand Iraqi civilians have already been sacrificed in this disgusting exercise of sociopathic desperation.
That a few hundred additonal lives were wasted in squalid pornographic rituals only deepens the obscenity.


alkali 05.02.04 at 9:52 pm

The treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib may be shocking in the sense that it very strongly offends our sense of conscience, but it cannot be said to be shocking in the sense of surprising. It is inevitable that over the course of a prolonged occupation, there will be some egregious human rights violations, even if you believe — as I do — that the military personnel comprising this occupying force are for the most part about as well-trained and well-intentioned as any occupying force in history.

Bad apples — and, probably more relevantly, cases of group dynamics gone awry — are simply a fact of human nature. There is no point in pretending that these kinds of events are aberrational; what would be truly aberrational would be for no such events to occur.

(Indeed, as human rights violations go, this particular set of events seems to be on the less egregious side. While we have yet to learn the full scope of what occurred, it seems that the worst of what happened were that some prisoners were subjected to episodes of humiliation or false threats. Those acts should be strongly condemned, but they are some distance from the horrors of the Lubyanka. If what we know is the worst that happened, we should be thankful for that.)

Why is it important to keep this context in mind? Not to excuse any of the personnel involved, who — it is to be profoundly hoped — will meet justice. Rather, it is important to keep this context in mind when those who proposed and supported the occupation argue that these human rights violations were an unforeseeable obstacle to the success of an otherwise well-thought-out plan. The truth of the matter is that even if you think the very best of the American military and its personnel, you should reasonably have anticipated that at least some of these kinds of violations (or worse) would occur and come to light in the course of a long occupation, and it is no excuse to say that you had hoped that no such violations would occur.


Scorpio 05.03.04 at 1:24 am

I’ve been saying the same thing repeatedly all over the web as well as on my web log (4/29) — evacuate it, photograph the entire inside, raze it, and pave over the site where it stood.



John Quiggin 05.03.04 at 1:50 am

Thanks for pointing this out, Scorpio. I’ve added a link to the post.


hereandnow 05.04.04 at 10:01 am

It’s really sad for me to see that the world pays so much attention to specific incidences of “bad” and ignores so much “good.” I’m currently here at Abu Ghraib- I arrived as the unit responsible for the atrocities posted all over the news was on its way out, and the investigations were already far underway. It pains me to see the soldiers here, working hard, mostly reservists making less money here than they do at home, being judged by the actions of the “few.” Everyone is so quick to point the finger, scorn and criticize. The problem is that none of these same people are very quick to help. Write an essay that’s critical! But remember that your freedom to do it is protected by the MANY soldiers serving this great country that would never consider participating in acts such as those 60 Minutes II depicted. The MANY are embarrassed. The MANY are angry that their name is scarred by the actions of a few. The MANY deserve thanks and praise, not scorn, hatred and negative/critical media attention because of what someone did before them.


Jim 05.05.04 at 12:11 am

“But remember that your freedom to do it is protected by the MANY soldiers serving this great country”

I’m sorry, but my freedom of speech has very very little do with the soldiers in Iraq right now. The President who put them there has done very little to encourage freedom of speech since he took office. In fact, he’s done the opposite. I’ll save my thanks for the folks who fought in World War II, against a genuine enemy.

I would that our soldiers in Iraq shoot Paul Bremer in the head the next time they see him and demand that they be airlifted home as soon as possible. That would be the most helpful thing they could to “heal” the relationship betwee the US and the Middle East.


Alex R 05.06.04 at 2:41 am

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