There is an element of the surreal and a large dollop of hypocrisy in the expressions of shock and dismay over human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of newly "liberated" Baghdad.
Given the Bush administration's scrupulous inattention to the morality of its Iraq policy, it's ironic that a handful of sadists from Appalachia have succeeded in making the Geneva Conventions mandatory reading in the halls of power again.
President Bush went on the Al Arabiya network to express his "abhorrence" over what American soldiers did to Iraqi prisoners. Secretary of State Colin Powell, irrepressibly honest when it's to his advantage, didn't do Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld any favors by comparing the burgeoning abuse scandal to the My Lai massacre on "Larry King Live."
Rumsfeld himself is reportedly licking wounds inflicted on his backside by a president slowly catching on to the fact that his subordinates think so little of his claim that he's a "War President" that they keep unpleasant details about a war he started from him, as though he were an idiot.
Proving how imitative and unoriginal they are as a species, American politicians are falling all over each other feigning disgust that liberators of Iraq's nascent democracy would engage in some of the human rights violations and humiliations that were hallmarks of the previous regime.
"We're shocked, shocked to find torture going on in Abu Ghraib prison," they're quick to say, reeking of all the insincerity but none of the charm of Claude Rains in "Casablanca."
For a society as fascinated by violence and its big screen simulations as ours is, the fact that our leaders are so easily "shocked" when the real thing comes around underscores how truly fraudulent their perception of the world is. Wouldn't it be nice if these suddenly compassionate pols got it in their heads to look closer to home for the same horrors?
The comparison between the smiling sadists in the Abu Ghraib photographs and the postcards of early 20th-century lynching victims surrounded by their grinning tormentors has been made by people cleverer than myself, but very few have made an even more salient observation: The soon-to-be court-martialed soldiers took their cues from the way things are often done in American prisons.
Even folks who don't subscribe to HBO couldn't help thinking of "Oz" when the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced. The gritty prison melodrama instructed viewers on the manly art of sodomy, guard-on-prisoner abuse and the intricacies of psychological humiliation.
That's why no one should be shocked that two of the soldiers under investigation for prisoner abuse in Iraq once worked as prison guards in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Prisons have long been hothouses for sadists who get high on their own brutal authority.
With 2 million Americans behind bars, one sector of the economy that continues to grow is prison construction. Thanks to three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing, more people than ever are being squeezed into spaces unfit for humans.
There's an assumption in this country that once you're caught up in the criminal justice system, you get what you deserve, more or less. Whatever sympathy people can muster for strangers is reserved primarily for victims. No one wants to hear about the abuse of prisoners' rights in America, especially opportunistic politicians elected on law-and-order platforms.
The first paragraph of the Human Rights Watch Prison Project is sobering in its description of the conditions of life behind bars: "In many jails, prisons, immigration detention centers and juvenile detention facilities, confined individuals suffered from physical mistreatment, excessive disciplinary sanctions, barely tolerable physical conditions, and inadequate medical and mental health care. Unfortunately, there was little support from politicians or the public for reform."
It's great that Americans are scandalized by the treatment of the Iraqi prisoners. Sympathy for American inmates shouldn't be such a stretch, either.
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