Facilitate the power of love - confront the love of power

Mon, 03 May 2004

Shock and H(Awe)rror

The 'pacification' of Falluja by the US and its allies triggered the installation of this blog.

Falluja sounded and felt, especially from eye-witnesses in the city, like punishment, an off the scale reprisal for the shocking killings and mutilation of four US civilian contractors. Reprisals count as war crimes.

The massive civilian casualties appeared acceptable to the US military and except on the Internet and alJazeera, no one seemed to be noticing. The extraordinary mismatch of overwhelming force coupled with gratuitous 'collateral damage' to civilians seemed an acute example of domination in action. See Monday April 19th page here for more on this.

And then a bit over a week ago, the capacity for the dominant elites to control the stories that they tell and to suppress stories that contradict their favorite tales was decisively broken by The New Yorker, which decided to tell what it knew about gross abuse of prisoners in Iraq. The New Yorkers' Friday publication, complete with a set of online photos, prompted a pre-emptive Thursday airing of a CBS Special on the same subject that had been on hold since the Pentagon had let it be known it would be 'unhelpful'.

The pictures of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib unbuttoned the uniform of military denial of treatment of Iraqi detainees that the Red Cross and Human Rights groups had been complaining about since this time last year. Since then artifacts of domination from Iraqi prisons have become, and continue to be, front page news pretty much everywhere. A woman, photographed holding a 'dog lead' round the neck of a naked male prisoner – a more cogent image of dominance and subjection would be hard to find.

So where does this take me in my inquiry? In that curiously impressive and paradoxical way of things American, the Rumsfeld Senate hearings yesterday, despite patriotic grandstanding, began to put the finger on what ultimately matters about Abu Ghraib and the parallel British evidence of abuse. Is it due to a rogue, perhaps untrained, unsupervised, element in the military? Or is it systemic, intrinsic to the US military/intelligence gathering mindsets? Even reflective of core (if denied) US values?

Telling Stories
One take on this, following James C. Scott that I have found very helpful, introduces the notion that dominant elites tell and recycle stories to themselves and their subjects that justify and rationalize their dominance. Similarly subordinate individuals, groups and peoples—slaves, colonies, client states—tell stories that justify and rationalize their subordination, with the added value of helping them survive its difficulties.

An essential condition for this situation to be sustained is that this story-telling be in the form of one way traffic. Dominant stories are perpetually recycled inside the dominant elite groupings and broadcast in myriad ways to the subordinate populations.

Subordinate group's stories are also recycled in the subordinate populations but discreetly, because their content is likely to be regarded as 'dissent', 'unpatriotic', 'unAmerican', and it storytellers as 'troublemakers', or even 'evil-doers'. Active subordinate storytellers learn to take care where and when they tell their stories, lest, like Jesus, they become victim of a dominant elite's anxieties.

From time to time, some aspect of the subordinates story bridges the gap and is heard by both the dominant elites and the subordinates. A truth about their relative relationship is suddenly exposed in an event recognizable because it resembles a lightning strike. The 9/11 attack on New York, in which a bin Laden subordinate Islamic story was heard only too clearly by the world, seems an obvious example. Similarly the series of pictures of the 'abuse' and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.

To put it another way, the dominant elite story that the US was bringing Infinite Justice and Freedom and Democracy to Iraq was short-circuited by the exposure in pictures of what this often looked like on the ground. Arbitrary arrest, detention without charge, no contact with relatives or lawyers, brutal, damaging interrogation techniques. Torture.

The US military establishment, having known at the end of last year about both the 'abuses' and the pictorial evidence, made a five-line text/oral announcement to the press in January that it was being investigated, guessing that like lots of such press releases, it would be ignored. Press releases are one of the myriad forms taken by the dominant elite stories we tell ourselves. They can instruct us to forget, or, as in this case, ignore.

Rather than acknowledge the origins of the appalling 9/11 demonstration of American vulnerability, the lightning strike of these events seems to have been absorbed immediately by most of the US into their dominant elite story of the invincible superpower starring Secretary Rumsfeld as Achilles. Faced with the near impossible task of finding bin Laden, the US military enacted a reprisal on his supporters, the perhaps justly infamous Taliban, and subsequently have been prepared to reach an accommodation with Afghan warlordism, the epitome of grassroots dominance.

Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday said that the pictures from Abu Ghraib were only the beginning, apparently there also videos and even more sadistic images. As the revelations unfold, they will continue to short circuit the tension between the dominant elite stories of patriotic men and women sacrificing their lives to protect America, and the Iraqi subordinate stories of a people whose lives are devoid of value, where humiliation, gratuitous damage and abuse are justified. An insidiously successful part of the dominant elite story about the Abu Ghraib events which I find myself wanting to reject, is that that the prisoners were not tortured, only 'abused'.

The scale of the Abu Ghraib contradiction worldwide of the US administration's dominant elite story of America as a 'crusader' in a 'war against terror', and 'protector of civilized values', has yet to sink in. Yesterday, in the Senate Rumsfeld hearings, this acute discomfort, and the extent to which the Pentagon, for all it supposed technical superiority was out- flanked by digital technology and the internet was (commendably) on public display.

Sec. Rumsfeld: We're functioning in a -- with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation, in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had -- they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.

Reading the transcript of the senate hearing reinforced my sense of a disconnect between the American dominant elite story and life as lived on the Iraqi ground. The acute pain, damage, and traumatization that the detainees must have suffered was out of the frame. Abu Ghraib was on the way to becoming a public relations failure.

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