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Tortured logic

Big Ben, whose opinion I respect, had some sharp criticism for this post on the New York Times’ portrayal of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse. Reading his comment, I see that I could have done a better job of explaining why the Times article struck me as inappropriate.

Let's get something out of the way right up front: I make no defense for the actions of U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib. Whether simply humiliating, or, in other cases, physically violent, such tactics are (1) unacceptable on human rights grounds, (2) of dubious utility as intelligence-gathering techniques, and (3) devastating to America's international credibility as a force for good.

Certainly, some of the acts in question went well beyond "frat-house hazing-style abuse", which was an inappropriately glib term for me to use. Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib did represent a case of power and hatred leading people to commit violent, abusive, and, yes, evil acts -- and in that limited respect, Benedict Carey’s article in the Times is fair enough.

But Carey goes overboard by including Abu Ghraib on a short list of inhumanity’s greatest hits, along with the Nazi death camps, the Killing Fields, savage beheadings, and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. True, he doesn't explicitly claim that Abu Ghraib was the equivalent of the Holocaust. But he's only too happy to juxtapose the two, and let the reader draw the inference.

If Carey needed another example of true evil, he would have been better off looking at Abu Ghraib under Saddam's rule, when his Ba'ath regime executed thousands of political prisoners there every year, sometimes killing over 100 in a single day.

Carey's inclusion of U.S. prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib amidst a selection of much worse atrocities, and in place of so many others that might have been included instead (like the U.N. child rape scandal in the Congo), suggests that his true motivation in doing so was to take a cheap shot at the U.S. military by associating it with history's most murderous regimes and cruelest terrorists.

At any rate, Carey does cite all the events as comparable, claiming that they each demonstrate how ordinary people are easily led to commit horrible acts.

Such a comparison is not valid.

While disgraced troops like Lynndie England and Charles Graner apparently had no problem humiliating or abusing prisoners, it’s my hunch that they would have balked at feeding children into the ovens at Auschwitz.

The creation of an entire infrastructure for the wholesale murder of millions of men, women, and children is way past prisoner abuse on the evilometer. As Samuel Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, comparing oral sex to a foot massage, it “ain't the same ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same f***in' sport.”

The abuses at Abu Ghraib fall far short of Nazi-level atrocities, in number but more importantly in kind. There is a fundamental difference between beating a prisoner, and deliberately rounding up civilians for the express purpose of exterminating them.

Grouping Abu Ghraib together with Nazi prison camps, the Killing Fields, or other, similar atrocities is dangerous, because it diminishes their historical significance. The Abu Ghraib abuses, while shameful and criminal, hardly, as Carey wrote, "suggest how much further people can go when they feel justified." They don't even begin to.

I’m reminded of a scene from The Incredibles, when Dash’s mom tells him that "everybody is special."

"Which is another way of saying that no one is," he replies.

And when everyone’s a Nazi, no one is, either.


Anonymous said...

I see your point, and that's one reason why I believe people should be careful with Nazi comparisons.

The problem is that I don't think the article was trying to make a political point or to argue that these acts were the same in any way. The article was about otherwise normal people being capable of acts of evil when they are overly convinced of their own righteousness, and the events at Abu Ghraib fit that description. I don't think Carey was arguing that they were the same except in that narrow sense. Using Abu Ghraib under Hussein as an example wouldn't have worked because few of us think of Saddam's torturers as "otherwise normal people".
I think Carey used an example where Americans were the transgressors to make the point that none of us should assume ourselves to be immune from this tendency, and for the purposes of the article, I think this was appropriate. I agree that ideally he should have added a caveat about the important difference in degree of evil, but I think your reading of his intentions is also a bit uncharitable. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

ok, yes the Nazi death camps were evil places, but to the average German citizen, they supposedly didn't know what was going on there, how would they know? especially if they were apathetic like most of the general public and their attention was drawn to fighting a war. I bet a large portion of the people that worked in those camps fully didn't know what was going on there and it was probably made easy to over look what was going on. The holocaust was certainly evil, but it required alot of people to turn a blind eye, many people helped in the effort, they may not have herded people into the gas chambers or run the bulldozers or the furnaces, but they helped in other less evil ways. I'd probably have to say that were relatively few people in Germany, Poland etc who where directly involed in the most evil parts of the holocaust, many more were involed in more mundane evil that allowed the holocaust to happen in the first place. Something as big and evil as the holocaust doesn't happen in a vacuum and as history has shown us, such mass killings don't happen overnight, they gradually take place, a few rights or property confiscated, then rounding up people into camps or being turned into slave labor, then when there are an excess of prisoners that are a burden that's when mass extermination starts taking place.

So my whole point is yes, the Holocaust was very Evil, but the entire amount of evil can't be pinned on just one person or nation or group, the major evil is shared by many who collaborated in big and small ways and the holocaust shouldn't be used as an excuse to do lesser evil today, the defense of AB shouldn't be 'it's not like we oven roasted 10 million people' now just forget everything you've just seen. 

Posted by Jim

Anonymous said...

"the defense of AB shouldn't be 'it's not like we oven roasted 10 million people' now just forget everything you've just seen.  "

Well, if those loud voices who accuse the most would stop the comparisons, then this wouldn't be an issue now, would it?

It's a crap defence to a crap accusation. Ergo, GEIGO. 

Posted by Kresh

Anonymous said...

Sorry, too much TV.

GIGO, not GEIGO. Sheesh. I wonder about my brain sometimes... 

Posted by Kresh

Anonymous said...

Still you miss the point. The essay it mentioned the shocking images: remember the pile of naked prisoners? That was shocking.

I won't be careful with Nazi comparisions, not at all, the reason as demonstrated in that ugly history and recent ongoing situations in Africa, is how easily people can let their tribalism/nationalism excuse doing evil things. People come to this point, this crossing the line so easily.

How many months were those guards in Iraq there? It wasn't long before the worst in human nature came out. I don't even care who was responsible anymore, scapegoats? They ultimately controlled their own actions. NO sympathy, and no regrets for insulting, "the decent" Gajiin Biker.

G.B. you are not even handed, or immune to this either, go back and read your mindset about the Palestinian/Israeli situation. You excuse Israel's actions wholesale, placing all blame on the Palestinians. Everything Israel does, everything is excused as innocent self defense. That's why I made my accusing statement. I stand by it.

Back to the Holocaust for a second, the German people did know what was going on. They had built such an intense hatred of the Jews into their way of thinking, it was that fucker Hitler's main platform, what he came into power on, fuck over the Jews, and the German people cheered him on. Blind eye my ass. Evil is easy, goodness is hard. I think G.B. has taken the easy way in his thinking about some things too.

I've very insultingly included G.B. in the catergory of someone who is capable of joining a group of people, that okays injust, and horrible actions against fellow humans, because everyone can easily fall into that. And that it is, and would be depending where you are, an act of courage to stand up to such things. That's why a person like Schindler was such a hero.

Of course the U.S. did stuff, we turned a "blind eye" too slavery, and segregation for a long time. People good God fearing, church going people, "decent" people supported evil policies for a long time. No one is immune to this taking the easy, evil way, it's a choice not to.

Just remember this, for all my dislike, perhaps unjustified, of George Bush, he did come out right away about how he was apalled with what occured at Abu Gharaib. And I would think the pictures had a impact on him. I have to admire someone who is so frank, and honest. Bush's main strength, and perhaps his greatess weakness, if we lose in Iraq for example, is he is a Idealist, capital "I".


Posted by fasteddie

Anonymous said...

the shit Saddam did at that prison, it wasn't us. And we didn't have pictures, at least any I've seen. Remember those pictures, weren't obscure. They were everywhere, and it is to the credit of our free press that they were. The U.S. stands for better, or if not, it invalidates our efforts in Iraq in everyway. Makes us the ultimate hypocrites.  

Posted by fasteddie

Anonymous said...

well the heat of the moment has passed and some people may not come back here to read this but remorse has set in and I feel bad for saying you could be as bad as a Nazi. You retreated from your statement that really pissed me off, the Frat house thing. Seeing as I'm just some anonymous guy, from Seattle who has made the habit of coming here and disagreeing with your dilitante punditry. It's not fair to have been so harsh, seeing as your family and friend's probably read this blog of yours. I still will disagree and will post here. I am what I am, and I stand for things strongly, I could be more diplomatic. And I do apologize. If I'm angry at things you say in the future, I promise to try to be more constructive in my comments. Thing is to do it without censoring the gist of my points. your whole tone with this blog is polite, but snarky, constant ironic hostility below the surface. Well I'm more open in my hostility to opinions I don't agree with, but such self righteousness is more damning then constructive and I apologize for taking the gloves off. You deserve better.  

Posted by fasteddie



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