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Mon, 10 May 2004

Ships passing in the night

I've been struggling for a day or two now to find a voice adequate to the incoming tide of recent dominance-related events, especially the US forces treatment of Iraqi prisoners. My earlier notion of trance—of the US administration and the US population being entranced—spellbound—by their belief in the intrinsic naturalness of their right to dominate world affairs, may yet be adequate. We'll see.

From this perspective, calling the treatment of the prisoner in this picture 'abuse', is to reinforce the dominance trance. It denies the reality that, for the victim, this is torture. According to the New Yorker, unpublished pictures show the same man moments later on the ground bleeding, having apparently been savaged by the dogs in the picture. The revelations have been received with both horror, and as we'll see below, denial, except in this article by Ariel Dorfman nowhere have I found an empathic appreciation of the appalling traumatization and long-term psychic damage that this kind of treatment produces.

Nevertheless, the Abu Ghraib and British pictures do appear to have broken the moral superiority trance that justified the US and British attack on Iraq. Damage limitation, in the shape of mealy-mouthed near-apologies, testifies to the US administration's surprise that these events had not only occurred 'on their watch', as Secretary Rumsfeld put it, but were being seen world-wide. The spell of high moral superiority, of intrinsic American virtue, was in pieces.

Several attempts at trance repair (I'm making up the terminology as I go!) occurred during the US Senate Rumsfeld hearings on Friday, notably the several voices that claimed that the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib were 'rogue elements'.

Sec. Rumsfeld: these terrible acts were perpetrated by a small number of U.S. Military...
Gen Smith. The situation at Abu Ghraib is not representative of the conduct of U.S. and coalition forces, it is a distasteful and criminal aberration
Sec: Brownlee: The reported acts of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib are tragic and disappointing, and they stand in sharp contrast to the values of our Army and the nation it serves.
Gen. Shoomaker:  what we are dealing with are actions of a few, as has been pointed out. These are conscious actions that are contrary to all that we stand for. This is not a training issue but one of character and values. Our Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage are taught to our soldiers from the moment they enter the training base.

While they were commendably open, the Senate hearings contained nothing on the suffering of the tortured but a lot of agonizing about the broken US trance and how it could be restored.

Sec. RUMSFELD: This degree of breakdown in military leadership and discipline ......defies common sense. It contradicts all the values we Americans learn, beginning in our homes.
Sec. Rumsfeld cont. We value human life. We believe in individual freedom and in the rule of law. For those beliefs, we send men and women of the armed forces abroad to protect that right for our own people
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, the behavior by Americans at the prison in Iraq is, as we all acknowledge immoral, intolerable, and un-American.
SEN. SESSIONS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. These are indeed actions that go against the very core values of America.
....what we have seen [is] a violation of American values.
Our nation to a degree unprecedented in human history has sacrificed its blood and treasure to secure liberty and human rights around the world, now must try to convince the world that the horrific images on their TV screens and front pages are not the real America; that what they see is not who we are.

Others who I fancy who do indeed accurately reflect mainstream US values didn't see any need to repair the trance. As Media Matters reported for Rush Limbaugh - US right of sensible talk radio host, it evidently wasn't broken.
From the May 4 Rush Limbaugh Show, titled "It's Not About Us; This Is War!":
CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men --
LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You of heard of need to blow some steam off?
The day before, on his May 3 show, Limbaugh observed that the American troops who mistreated Iraqi prisoners of war were "babes" and that the pictures of the alleged abuse were no worse than "anything you'd see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage."

There were also voices in the US, and to me a surprising number of them, who refused to feed the administration damage limitation and contradicted the notion that the Abu Ghraib events were an aberration. In the Senate Rumsfeld hearings, some Senators coupled the Abu Ghraib events with the US administration's decision to withdraw protection of the Geneva convention from Al Qaeda personnel.

Sen. Levin: The president's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, reportedly wrote in a memorandum that the decision to avoid invoking the Geneva Conventions, quote, "preserves flexibility" in the war on terrorism. Belittling or ignoring the Geneva Conventions invites our enemies to do the same and increases the danger to our military service men and women. It also sends a disturbing message to the world that America does not feel bound by internationally accepted standards of conduct.

Sen. Kennedy: You and your senior leadership have shown, I believe, a disregard for the protection of the Geneva Conventions in detainee operations. In January 2002, you were asked why you believed the Geneva Conventions do not apply to detainees in Guantanamo. You replied that you did not have "the slightest concern about their treatment" in light of what has occurred in 9/11.

Sen. Levin: Secretary Rumsfeld, I was struck upon seeing one of the photographs from the prison depicting three naked prisoners in a lump on the floor being overseen by a number of soldiers, while other soldiers in the cell block were assisting or were going about their business without any apparent interest in or concern about the obvious abusive treatment, that the conduct that we were witnessing and watching was not aberrant conduct of a few individuals but was part of an organized and conscious process to extract information.

Dominant elite trances of the kind that appear to have captured large sections of the US population take upon themselves the right to insist that rules, regulation and laws are for other people. Boundaries and limits are defined by what you can get away with, rather than by negotiation, cooperation, empathy, caring, or a sense of social responsibility.  The Guantanamo prison regime with its as yet uncharged, untried, 'illegal combatants', is a continuing example of free-range dominance in action; the senators could have added the American refusal to be a signatory to the International Criminal Court because of the possibility that US citizens would be indicted. A realistic concern it would now seem.

To invoke another, more psychological dimension to these events, in this article Donna Hughes found the Abu Ghraib images 'Not Unfamiliar'. In her work inquiring into abuse and people trafficking in the Ukraine and elsewhere she had come across methods of identity demolition being used to initiate women into prostitution that very closely match the Abu Ghraib practices.

The images from Abu Ghraib are trophy pictures. The sadistic MPs are shown posing, smiling, and gloating over their victims and what they have made them do. Similarly, I found numerous offers on the Internet from pimps for men to bring cameras and video recorders with them to make trophy images and videos of their sexual use of women and girls.

From another perspective she echoes Limbaugh in seeing the Abu Ghraib pictures  and the events to which they testify as commonplace images of American Culture

President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have condemned the acts and the abuse of the Iraqis. They said that these acts do not represent American values. I want to believe that is true. Yet, I see the common themes and methods used by other types of perpetrators on different victims. These similar images are what the young American soldiers from the Internet generation have grown up with and learned to call "adult entertainment." Did they become desensitized to the harm of doing such things to people by seeing multiple images of similar abuse to women? Did they learn how to violate someone by being a voyeur to abuse, and in Abu Ghraib they had the chance to become perpetrators — and pornographers? Did they fully comprehend the harm they were doing?

And elsewhere, if we were to be in any doubt of the extent to which US values are dominance-driven, here is a mainstream account of the estimated $10 billion a year US 'adult entertainment' industry, a sub-set of the prostitution trade. Some headlines:

- well over 800 million rentals of adult videotapes and DVDs in video stores across the country each year
- 11,000 titles produced annually
- California 'adult 'entertainment employs an excess of 12,000 people
- California 'adult 'entertainment  pays over $36 million in taxes every year.
- The big hotel chains: Hilton, Marriot, Hyatt, Sheraton and Holiday Inn, all offer 'adult' films on in-room pay-per-view television systems. They are purchased by 50 percent of their guests, accounting for nearly 70 percent of in-room profits.

Judging from the number of porn shops near where I live in Brussels, similar figures would apply to Europe.

Two things emerge from all this for my inquiry. One is that the Abu Ghraib revelations have probably been a trance-breaking event comparable to the 9/11 events in New York. And second, that from an Islamic perspective, the US trance was already broken, or was never securely in place. In Islamic cultures if I understand them correctly, it is deeply shameful for men to see each other naked, and for women's hair, or in some corners of Islam, any part of women's bodies, to be exposed. For such a culture the extent to which sexuality has become a commodity in Western Societies will be anathema.

And yet I'm inclined to see that in their innermost workings both enshrine dominance as a given. In a way I hadn't seen before, they mirror each other, mirror control over women's bodies.

In Islamic societies, male dominance requires that women's bodies, perhaps bodies in general, be hidden. In the West, male dominance requires that bodies, especially womens' bodies, be exposed, made to seem potentially available. As for example in this ad in downtown Brussels, or this boutique window in Venice.

Small wonder then that such societies behave like ships passing in the night.

NB some of the US newspapers links require (free) registration for access to the linked pages