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June 7, 2004
Misperception Of The
Abu Gharib Prison Abuses

R.J. Rummel

Until now, I have not commented on the abuses at the Abu Gharib prison for lack of solid information. Were, for example, the Iraqi prisoners captured after firing on Americans and other Iraqis? Or, were they caught with weapons on them or in their homes or cars? Or, were they only under suspicion. Or, thouht to be spies? Who they are means quite different treatment according to the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, in almost all these cases, as the rebellion against the American occupation is being fought by those in civilian dress, those captured would not be considered prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions because they do not fulfill the following conditions (Part I, Art. 4.2):
(a) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;

(b) that of carrying arms openly;

(c) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

The rebels have violated virtually all the Geneva Convention's protections accorded to Iraqi civilians, foreign civilian contractors, and the occupying military of the American alliance.

Second, the nature of the abuses of the prisoners and their extent (murder?) is still being investigated. Third, who is responsible in the chain of command is still conjecture. And finally, the why is still unknown. Were, for example, these abuses a softening up prior to interrogation of Iraqi prisoners who had--no might of, but had--information that would save Iraqi and military lives? If so, this puts a different light on the abuses, than were they only of prisoners being simply held on suspicion.

All this being said, the photos of the abuses of the Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison have occasioned a whirlwind of negative comment and propaganda. Even without full information, I must try to correct a gross and dangerous misperception that can only aid the enemies of freedom and democracy.

The Abu Gharib prison affair, which includes the abuses and reaction to them, is uniformly seen and treated as bad, a black mark on the American occupation of Iraq, on the American military, the Secretary of Defense, the President of the United States, and the United States itself. Of course, this is part of the election season in the United States, and those who seek to unseat President Bush in the coming elections have jumped on this, as would any political opposition seize any possible negative taint or scandal involving an incumbent they were trying to unseat. That is the way the democratic game is played. Moreover, those forces hostile to or overtly or covertly at war with the United States will similarly use for lurid propaganda what negatives about their hated enemy are gifted to them. This is understandable and in the nature of war. Condemning it as a double standard is like shaking one's head at water flowing downhill

But then there is the mass of politicians, commentators, journalists, and others intellectually involved that have also adopted a totally negative view of the Abu Gharib affair. This is the wrong perspective. The affair actually puts democracy and particularly the United States in a good light, one that should be the basis for any discussion of the affair and response to the critics and enemies. While we should not be happy with what happened, and treat it as the criminal act it may be, the context and follow up to these abuses should make us proud.

Proud? I'm sure that in the current political climate, I must now be thought crazy or blind. But one thing that is missed is the paucity of abuses, even if they are multiplied through what is uncovered in other American managed Iraqi prisons. Consider: murder, rape, torture go on in every major American city and town. In 1999, the American murder rate was 5.7 per 100,000 people. Since 40,000 Iraqis have been held prisoner at one time or another and 10,000 remain in custody, one should expect perhaps two or three murders to have occurred, which, as I understand it, is the case. The deaths of two Iraqi prisoners have already been ruled homicides.

This is to say that murders and abuse, as horrible as they are, will occur. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment carried out in 1971 by Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo has showed this. The idea was to determine how people, psychologically tested as "normal," would role-play as guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment set up for two weeks. The result: the experiment was cancelled after six days, because of the psychological torture and abuse heaped on the "prisoners" by the "guards" and the psychological collapse of some of the "prisoners." The subjects selected were not wimps, muscle men, or sadists, and were randomly assigned as guards or prisoners.

Thus, we should not be surprised at the abuse at Abu Gharib prison, and should have expected even more of it. It is what goes on in many American prisons every day. It is the nature of the environment and the power the guards have. But where does the pride I speak of come in?

First, there is so far so little such proven abuse, given the conditions in Iraq and that these prisoners, as least some of them surely, have attacked under the cover of civilian clothes other civilians and coalition soldiers. Compare this abuse to what the ruling thugs of this world do. For example, when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, his son murdered 2,000 people in the Abu Gharib prison in one day. Neighboring Iran's ruling Ayatollah Khomeini murdered 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 (including children as young as 13 hanged from cranes, six at a time). On the opposite border to Iraq, when Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria in 1982, his troops murdered 15,000 in Hama in revenge against Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, there is the 3,838 day-by-day terrorist attacks on the Jews of Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in 2003, killing 50 members of the security forces and 163 civilians; the civilians intentionally targeted as acts of genocide in disregard of the Genocide Convention, and the Geneva Convention meant to protect civilians in time of conflict and war.

And daily, throughout the thugdoms (such as Algeria, Angola, Burma, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam), people are routinely beaten, raped, tortured, some to death, and murdered in their prisons. We should be proud that among Iraqi prisoners held by the coalition military, the killing and abuse is so little, so very little, even by the "normal" abuses we should expect by virtue of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Second, what abuse occurred was reported by other soldiers.

Third, the military itself initiated investigations, and although many are still ongoing, some have progressed sufficiently to hand out punishment. Where, in the thugdoms, among all the mass murderers that rule one miserable people or another is there an investigation of mistreatment of prisoners.

Fourth, the press has reported the abuses to the American people. A free press at work. Same question as above. Where in the thugdoms would reporters dare to report on prison abuses?

Fifth, the American Secretary of Defense, in his control of the world's only super military the second most powerful man in the world next to the president, must publicly report to Congress and face a battery of public questions, some hostile. And he yet may be forced to resign. Again, where in the thugdoms would such a powerful head of the military face questions of the military's abuse of prisoners. Even the idea is absurd. Only in a democracy.

Sixth, both the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States have reported on these abuses and apologized. Even the thought that Hussein, Assad, Khomeini, or the various heads of Hamas would do so is ridiculous. They would more likely have waved from the balcony of their office to the cheering, arm pumping, and sign waving crowds below celebrating what they had done.

So, in this Abu Gharib prison affair we have seen the power of democracy, of a democratically run military, and of a free press. Compared to the thugdoms that still enslave much of the world's people, we should be proud.

Yes, there is a double standard. But look at it this way. It is a compliment to the United States that our enemies and friends expect more of us, that they hold us to a high democratic standard. And it is a complement that our own journalists, politicians, and commentators also hold us to a higher standard than the thugs. They all implicitly, if not explicitly, recognize the United States for what it is. A country devoted to the rights of its citizens and those of the people of the world, and their freedom. This is indeed a complement of the first order, unknowingly bestowed on us even by our mortal enemies.

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