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Echoes of past at Abu Ghraib

by C. Fraser Smith  (17 May 2004)

Those images from Iraq are eerily reminiscent of this nation's dark history of lynching. First we had the charred and dismembered bodies of Americans strung up on bridges with triumphant, gun-waving Iraqis anxious to take credit for the carnage. This was, of course, the "evil" enemy.

Then came Abu Ghraib.

These pictures from the good side of the war suggest a willingness to dehumanize and torment in pursuit of intelligence and go miles beyond the third degree into some demented dimension.

There were the naked, hooded Muslims forced into humiliating postures. They were reminiscent of photographs taken after lynchings, when as many as five blacks were hung together in a jumble of bodies.

One of the obvious parallels between lynching and prisoner abuse, says James Allen, author of a lynching history called Without Sanctuary, is "white people towering over and dominating people with darker skin." Perhaps the intention of these interrogators was not racist. But the message of the oppressor over the oppressed is there to be exploited by this nation's enemies.

The Abu Ghraib perpetrators, we are told, had no training. Surely any failure to prepare young people for such tasks was a dereliction of duty.

At the same time, there is something unconvincing about the claim that these soldiers were free-lancers, guided only by their imaginations. They are portrayed as unworldly, immature Americans dropped into exotic circumstances and tasked with "softening" prisoners who were about to be interrogated.

But who told them that Muslim men abhor nakedness? Who suggested that putting women's underclothing on their heads would be particularly effective? And what about men on leashes held by women? Perhaps that sort of training was incompatible with safeguards that might have been taught along with the requirements of the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Allen says sympathy for the soldiers should spring from what he called the moral ambiguity of war and the almost certain demand for results from superiors. "If I were put in a situation like that, I might be doing the same thing," he said. "I identify with that need for acceptance at that age. They never dreamt a day in their lives that they would commit the acts they committed."

There are, to be sure, differences between the psychological lynching in Abu Ghraib and those that occurred on the bridge in Iraq or in states such as Maryland far into the last century. One of the strangest differences between the images of American lynch mobs and the interrogating soldiers is that in Iraq, the prisoners wore the hoods. In the heyday of lynching here, the lynchers from the Ku Klux Klan wore them. The pointed-top headgear in both cases is, again, eerily similar.

The lynching parties in both cases seem to have included voyeurs. The Abu Ghraib soldiers, like lynchers in America, apparently wanted a record of what they were doing. In his book, Mr. Allen includes pictures of lynching victims - and of gloating spectators.

All of this should remind us that humankind, including Americans bent on the spread of democracy, is capable of base behavior. Our defense against ourselves, our claim to virtue, includes the rule of law. Several of the U.S. hangings documented in Without Sanctuary were accomplished within view of courthouses, a mocking irony. George Armwood, the last Marylander to be lynched, was dragged past the Princess Anne courthouse, strung up and burned. That was in 1933.

Because Princess Anne was so close to Washington, D.C., Maryland officials and residents of the small Eastern Shore town were summoned to appear before a congressional committee then considering an anti-lynching law.

The lawmakers were asking who should be held responsible ultimately for the Armwood death. How far up the chain of command should one go to find guilty parties? We're hearing similar questions after Abu Ghraib.

Domestic politics shielded the nation from an appropriate response to the epidemic of lynching: Southern lawmakers opposed the law, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept silent because he needed these powerful men to advance his New Deal agenda.

Today, the vicissitudes of war - and what Mr. Allen calls the need to patch the torn veneer of national rectitude - could distort the outcome of the Abu Ghraib trials. Let's hope not. We owe the world - and ourselves - the whole truth.

- The Baltimore Sun

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revised 18 November 2005