Saturday, June 05, 2004

We’re Looking for a Few Bad Apples

It is far from clear that the Abu Ghaib excesses were exceptions, but the appeal of the “99% of the [cops, prison guards, soldiers, journalists, CEOs, stock brokers, lawyers, doctors, scientists…] are decent people” dodge is apparently irresistible and not just to the defenders of the administration. Nobody wants to suggest that all or most American soldiers are keen to abuse human beings or even that they are willing to go along with such doings, though, truth told, nobody knows how widespread the practices were. The appeal of the exonerating argument doesn’t depend on its factual basis—it usually has none—but in our reluctance to entertain the possibility that the exception may turn out to be, to an uncomfortable degree, the rule. It doesn’t bother me so much that this rhetoric may help malefactors get off the hook, if that’s indeed what’s going on. The trouble with the exception business is that it gives us an excuse for not looking at the rule itself because all the trouble is supposed to arise because of the aberrations of individuals.

Abu Ghraib nestles in the heart of a whole series of concentric circles. It is embedded in a much wider pattern of abusive practices that took place elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. It was made possible by a systematic hijacking of the existing military and civilian intelligence systems by ideologists. Legions of administration lawyers and public relations professionals, aided by the usual crew of fellow travelers in the commercial press, worked for a long time to weaken legal barriers against the torture of prisoners by figuring ways around the Geneva conventions. With considerable prescience, if not premeditation, these same people denied the jurisdiction of the World Court over Americans and resurrected the vicious sophistry, originally invented to manage inconvenient Haitians, that we could do whatever we want in Guantanamo because it isn’t our territory. These maneuvers were themselves part of a larger program, the promotion of a theory of American exceptionalism that provided an off-the-rack excuse suitable for any occasion. Since we know a priori that our intentions are benevolent and indeed sanctioned by a patriotic Jesus dedicated to our version of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, we can break any rule with impunity. Why reserve the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical for special occasions?

Rush Limbaugh famously asserted that the Abu Ghraib abuses were little worse than fraternity hazing. That’s absurd, of course, especially since it is likely that the guards murdered some of the prisoners, but it is true that it could have been much worse. My concern is that this episode is merely a segment of a longer trajectory. It belongs to a process of moral coarsening that has been going on for some time and may continue in the future despite brief interruptions. Some time ago, presumably out of fear, we Americans started to get cruel. As part of that process, we not only filled our prisons with millions but we rewarded politicians who made the prisons more terrible—the exception that is Abu Ghraib is arguable far less horrible than the daily routine of Pelican Bay.