In mid-April, Abu Ghraib was closed down. It was a grim end for the Iraqi prison where the Bush administration gave autocrat Saddam Hussein a run for his money. The Iraqi government feared it might be overrun by an al-Qaeda offshoot that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. By then, the city of Fallujah for which American troops had fought two bitter, pitched battles back in 2004 had been in the hands of those black-flag-flying insurgents for months. Needless to say, the American project in Iraq, begun so gloriously -- remember Iraqi exiles assuring Vice President Cheney that the invaders would be greeted with “sweets and flowers” -- was truly in ruins. By then, hundreds of thousands had died in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the insurgencies that followed, and the grimmest of sectarian civil wars. And the temperature was rising anew in that divided land, where only the Kurdish north was relatively peaceful. Iraq was once again threatening to fracture, with suicide bombers and car bombs daily occurrences, especially in Shiite areas of the country, and the body count rising rapidly.
The legacy of America’s Iraq is essentially an oil-producing wreck of a state with another autocrat in power, a Shiite government allied to Iran in Baghdad, and a Sunni population in revolt. That, in short, is the upshot of Washington’s multi-trillion-dollar war. It might be worth a painting by George W. Bush. Or maybe the former president should reserve his next round of oils not for the world leaders he met (and Googled), but for those iconic photos from the prison that might have closed in Iraq, but will never close in the American mind. From the torture troves of Abu Ghraib, there are so many scenes that the former president could focus on in his days of tranquil retirement.
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Those photos from hell were, at the time, so run-of-the-mill for the new American Iraq (“as common as cornflakes”) that they were used as screen-savers by U.S. military guards at that prison. The images then returned to the United States as computer "wallpaper" before making it onto "60 Minutes II" and into our collective brains. They revealed to this country for the first time that, post-9/11, Washington had taken a cue from the Marquis de Sade and any other set of sadists you cared to invoke. Of course, the photos and the systematic torture and abuse that went with them at Abu Ghraib were quickly blamed on the usual “few bad apples” and “some hillbilly kids out of control.”
As it happened, those photos that first entered public consciousness 10 years ago this week exposed a genuine American nightmare that led right to the top in Washington and has never ended. Included in the debacle were Justice Department lawyers who, at the bidding of the highest officials in the land, redefined torture in remarkable ways. They made it clear, for instance, that the only person who could affirm whether torture had actually taken place was the torturer himself. (If he didn’t think he had tortured, he hadn’t, or so the reasoning then went.)