Liberated to Death

May 10, 2004

Also published at

How, reporters and pundits have asked, could good American heroes behave so badly as to become torturers? There are at least three answers that most of the U.S. media will not touch.

One is that many of our soldiers entered the Army or the National Guard or Reserves bringing with them all the frustration of a class-divided society running low on living-wage jobs. Many families have filed for bankruptcy as a result of extended service in Iraq, compulsory service that is distinguishable from a traditional draft only in targeting exclusively those who have already served. Better that these people torture Iraqis than that they grow too hostile toward Ken Lay or Bill Gates, right?

The second answer is that what has been done to prisoners in Iraq is not entirely unlike common occurrences in prisons in the United States. Rape, torture, and murder happen in U.S. domestic prisons with a frequency that would appall most people if they knew about it. Human Rights Watch and other groups have worked to document these problems in the world’s largest per-capita prison system, a system that is also one of the most secretive and which suffers from an uninterested media. Of course, various members of the Army, Guard, and Reserves have previously worked in U.S. domestic prisons, not to mention the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay — the disturbing accounts from which have not terribly interested our visually stimulated media.

The third answer is that our soldiers have been behaving badly for over a year in ways we have known about, if you include among bad actions illegally invading another country to facilitate the seizing of its natural resources and public services. Our soldiers have been taught that Iraqis are terrorists, that Muslims are terrorists, that those fighting for their homes are “enemies of democracy.” Our soldiers, acting on faith in this nonsense, have killed more innocent civilians than Ted Koppel could name in a month, but I encourage him to try.

Why is cruelty worse when performed up close than when accomplished with missiles, bombs, and tanks? For over a year, the rest of the world has been looking at images of men, women, and children torn limb from limb in Iraq, houses crushed, skulls crushed, legs lost, eyes destroyed.

The U.S. media still will not show us those images but has suddenly begun showing us over and over again photos of American soldiers humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners. Presumably the perverse calculation of news-worthiness on the basis of ratings plays a role here, if not in keeping out the blood and gore then in allowing in the naked men threatened by snarling dogs.

But what is the official government/media argument? Why is reporting on American deaths controversial but reporting on Iraqi deaths unthinkable? And why is the cruelty in the prisons reported on so much more than the cruelty outside of them?

The answer may be even more disturbing than the ubiquitous photographs. The answer, I think, is that the suffering caused by bombs and bullets in war – what’s often dishonestly called “collateral damage” – is understood by our media to be a part of war that we (the “consumers”) understand without having to be told. It’s an accepted part of war and one that it’s not in good taste to dwell on. While various U.S. authors and pundits have pushed for acceptance of torture over the past few years, torture by the US government is still new and shocking. It has not yet become acceptable. If it ever reaches that point, we will be expected to know that torture is going on without being told, just as we are currently expected to know without being told about children suffering severe burns because that’s what happens in wars, or about prisoners being raped because that’s what happens in prisons.

“There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist,” Secretary of “Defense” Donald Rumsfeld told Congress last week. “If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse. That’s just a fact.” Worse for whom? Rumsfeld is asking the media to move torture of prisoners into the great realm of the acceptable but tasteless. He is asking the media to assume along with him that he knows better than the rest of us what should be kept from us for our own good.

While Rumsfeld stuttered and stammered his way through his testimony, he would seriously choke if anyone ever asked him to recite certain statements made by Thomas Jefferson, such as this: “The opinions and dispositions of our people in general, which, in governments like ours, must be the foundation of measures, will always be interesting to me.” Rumsfeld would state the reverse. So, clearly, would George W. Bush.

The Washington Post’s new tabloid for Metro riders, “The Express,” printed a letter last week from a reader who said that the mistreated Iraqis deserved little sympathy since they had attacked and killed Americans and hung them from a bridge. But this attitude is not a reason to have less faith in the public. It’s a reason to tell people the truth so that they can draw wiser conclusions.

We need to stop lumping all Iraqis together, so that the individuals tortured in prisons can be recognized as distinct people from those who committed some act of violence against an illegal occupying army or its corporate bosses. And we need to recognize the fundamental mistake in occupying another country in order to “liberate” it. Clearly we’ve liberated many people to death, and they may have been among the lucky ones.

David Swanson is Media Coordinator at the International Labor Communications Association. The views expressed are his alone.

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