America and the images
May 17, 2004
Amid the outrage generated by the US-led occupation of Iraq and the scandalous abuse of detainees by its soldiers it is easy to forget the strength and resilience of America's institutions and its various branches of power.
Those numbing images of naked, terrified and humiliated Iraqis being made to lie on top of each other and cower in fear as American soldiers - women included - engaged in various antics and acts of desecrations were not first broadcast on al-Jazeera TV or al-Arabiya or published in al-Quds. They were first carried on an American television network CBS' 60 Minutes II and later developed by the New Yorker magazine and its reporter Seymour Hersh. While there had been other reports of prisoner abuse dating back to October last year and the International Red Cross had been onto it for sometime, it was the airing of the claims in these two American outlets which was the lightning rod for the global dissemination of the images and condemnation of the acts of the US army and its contracted interrogators.
The US media - reflecting a wide range of views on the abuse - has not shirked from its responsibility of dissecting the images and trying to distil what they say about American mores, the rectitude of US policies and the quagmire that Washington now finds itself in. Neoconservatives and media aligned to them have mainly taken the position that America and the world have overreacted to the images of abuse and that they must be put in the context of their numbers and the pro-Saddam/anti-US terrorism and insurgency. It is so far not an argument that has found much substrate to grow on in the mainstream media through whose pictures, written and spoken words the average American citizen has had wall-to-wall coverage of the graphic images and the sombre truth of discovering what some of their much vaunted soldiers have been up to.
Picking up the media revelations, the US congress lost no time in asserting its influence and ensuring that the Bush administration understood that lawmakers were serious about ensuring the end of the abuse and finding out who were culpable. Around a week after the images appeared on CBS (CBS had initially delayed the broadcast after the Pentagon voiced concern about its impact on Americans then held hostage in Iraq) top US officials had been summoned to the Hill before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the extraordinary sight of a penitent Donald Rumsfeld shorn of his usual bombast and prickliness and having to profusely apologise as Defence Secretary for the "un-American" behaviour of the troops was beamed around the world for all to see.
It was a potent demonstration that the US legislature could take the lead in instigating necessary reforms and holding the executive branch of government accountable. The hyperactive power in Washington was brought to heel in the hallowed chambers of the senate before a bipartisan committee. Democrats and Republicans alike - though to varying degrees - issued condemnations of the treatment meted out to the Iraqis and demanded answers from Rumsfeld and Co.
In the face of the US army's own damning report by General Antonio Taguba on the abuses and the Red Cross's findings, the US government and defence establishment recognised that there was no pretending that the issue was a "tiny" one that could just be wished away as the government in Georgetown has tried to do with the death squad allegations. The Pentagon has now been forced to change methods of the so-called R2I (Resistance to Interrogation) which utilise sexual taunting and the stripping of prisoners. No more hooding or sleep deprivation etc will be tolerated and undoubtedly the abuse scandal will resonate in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and other places where brutal and secret methods of interrogation by the US armed forces have been employed. Without a doubt top brass in the army will have to take the blame and be made accountable. Most pundits say it is only a matter of time before Rumsfeld resigns calculating when it's best for his President's fortunes for him to do so. The latest New Yorker piece by Hersh which says that a Rumsfeld directive was behind the pattern of abuse makes it a case only of when he will depart.
Those soldiers who have engaged in these horrendous acts against defenceless Iraqis now face the prospect of court-martialling which will no doubt end careers and result in jail time. While there is always the prospect of influential perpetrators eluding prosecution for their deeds and those high up in the chain of command evading responsibility, the full glare of the media's and congress' spotlight will be on them in the months ahead notwithstanding the ongoing US election campaign.
Ordinary Americans have been shocked and shamed by the images and they too have spoken out forcefully. On January 13 this year, according to a report in the UK Observer, it was an anonymous note slipped under the door of a superior by US soldier Joseph Darby about some of the abuses which triggered the detailed investigations and the Taguba report.
The point is that though the US led by the Bush administration has earned the wrath of the international community by going it alone gung ho on many crucial matters, undermining the essence of pivotal institutions like the UN and multilateral mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol, invading Iraq in a reckless and unfounded campaign and blindly supporting Israel to the detriment of a coherent Middle East policy, there is within the American crucible an enormous reservoir of checks and balances, commonsense and goodness which should be recognised more than it has been in recent years. It has been unfortunately occluded by insensitive neoconservative-driven policies and an ingrained tendency by the average American to look inwards and hardly at the outside world except for where it intersects with what affects them most - in this era, the 9/11 memories and terrorism.
The prisoner-abuse scandal has demonstrated that America functions and that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn't the sole repository of power and influence.
Aren't there lessons here for Guyana and the Jagdeo administration? Months after the first credible reports on the existence of a death squad the government is now preparing to undertake a wholly unacceptable Presidential Commission of Inquiry where it has handpicked the commissioners and defined the limited terms of reference. It is full of defiance with not an iota of contrition or demonstration of its mantra of "inclusive governance".
Perhaps our inanimate Parliament could also be moved by the images of bipartisanship at work in the US congress on this and other issues and how party lines were unimportant to the issues at stake.