Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Masked and Anonymous: The Age of Abu Ghraib

This is an excerpt from the e-book, Empire Burlesque. From the summer of 2004.

Chapter Six

(January-June 2004)

Never could learn to drink that blood,
and call it wine.

– Bob Dylan,
Empire Burlesque


Abu Ghraib has long been the symbol of state terror in Iraq: not just a prison-fortress, but a zone of metaphysical perversion, where the principles of justice and law are turned inside out, converted into fiendish mockery. A place of torture and degradation, where human nature is stripped naked, reduced to Lear's "bare, fork'd animal," caked in blood and filth, whipped and tormented – all with the full warrant of the highest authorities, the approving imprimatur of honored leaders. Crime in the name of law, savagery in the name of civilization, destruction in the name of order – the transvaluation of all values.

This Nietzchean hell-hole was the epitome of the regime of Saddam Hussein – and George W. Bush made it his own. Even in an occupation characterized by an endless series of ignorant blunders and brutal stupidities, the adoption of Abu Ghraib as the chief concentration camp of the invading force boggles the mind – at first glance, at least. But it's only puzzling if viewed through the prism of reason, as if it were a decision of rational statecraft, designed to achieve a compelling national interest – in this case, a desire to avoid the unnecessary inflammation of Iraqi fears and anger, in order to reduce American casualties and speed the just and honorable resolution of a chaotic situation. (Leaving aside for a moment the monstrous crime of launching a war of aggression in the first place.)

If the true aim of the war was to eliminate the international threat allegedly posed by Saddam and liberate the Iraqi people from his onerous tyranny – as the Bush Regime and its liberal-hawk apologists repeatedly declared – then the last thing you would want to do is to associate yourself with the epicenter of the terror you ostensibly came to overthrow. You might tear it down and build a hospital on the site; you might turn into a memorial for the victims of Baathist torture; you might even, in good Bushist fashion, flog it off to a corporate crony for conversion into a shopping mall. But what you would not do, under any circumstances, is re-fill the fortress with thousands of fresh victims – the overwhelming majority of them innocent people rounded up randomly in violent home invasions and street-sweeping raids – and subject them to systematic torture and degradation.

Yet this is of course precisely what the Bush Regime did. Abu Ghraib, which had been emptied by Saddam in the final convulsions of his crumbling rule, was promptly reopened by Bush, ringed with American razor wire and filled to bursting with new prisoners. Whole families were tumbled into its maw, young children and old men, hundreds, thousands of the "disappeared," hooded, nameless, unrecorded, trashed. There – though not just in Abu Ghraib – they were stripped naked, caked in blood and filth, whipped and tormented, all with the full warrant of the highest authorities, the approving imprimatur of honored leaders. With a clean slate to build upon in the rubble of Iraq, with a hundred different strategies, methods and policies to choose from, with absolutely no compelling reason of statecraft or national interest to do so, Bush deliberately and consciously chose to recreate Saddam's system of state terror – in the very pit from whence it came.

Thus we can only conclude that it was never Bush's intention to alleviate the fear and anger of the Iraqi people, since he took such obvious steps to provoke them. We can only conclude that it was never his intention to liberate them from state terrorism, since he so pointedly imposed such a system himself. We can only include that he came to accomplish what he has indeed accomplished: the installation – through "a heavy dose of fear and violence," as one American commander so eloquently put it – of client state in Iraq, led by a strongman who will facilitate the Regime's long-term (and long-declared) strategic goal of establishing a permanent military "footprint" in the key Middle East oil state, along with its short-term goal of opening the country to ruthless exploitation by Bush cronies and contributors, and favored foreign interests.

By the middle of election year 2004, all of this had been accomplished. True, in its quest to install a Saddam Lite – more obedient, more presentable, less quirky – the Regime had to change horses in mid-stream, swapping its early favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted fraudster, suspected Iranian spy and proudly-confessed purveyor of false, warmongering intelligence ("We were heroes in error!") for a late-breaking dark horse: Chalabi's cousin and rival, Iyad Allawi, former Baathist enforcer, paid CIA tool, and leader of an anti-Saddam terrorist campaign that killed numerous Iraqi civilians, including a busload of schoolchildren. Obviously, this man of blood-and-iron action was much to be preferred over his windbag cousin, who could offer little more than lies and larceny.

Abu Ghraib was central to this successful operation – but its significance did not lie in Iraq alone. In April, with the release of a handful of pornographic pictures from its Bushist bowels, the fortress was transformed into an international symbol, the emblem of a worldwide system of state terror: The Pentagon Archipelago. There, in a global gulag of prisons and concentration camps, the Regime refined a thoroughgoing program of "interrogation" based on an array of coldly calculated physical and psychological torture techniques. Low-ranking cannon fodder – including part-time, undertrained, over-wrought reservists press-ganged into front-line service – were set loose to "prepare the ground for interrogations" through beatings, starvation, sleep-deprivation and ritual humiliations. Then the "experts" – CIA operatives, military intelligence officers and mysterious "private contractors" – would move in for the "information extraction." But if they didn't get "good stuff," the prisoners were subjected to more "preparation." Some prisoners were so well "prepared" they had to be packed in ice to keep their corpses from rotting while their killers decided how hide the results of this excessive liberation.

The release of the pictures – the now-famous Christ-figure wired on a box, the plucky mountain gal tugging a prisoner on a lease, the grinning "thumbs-up" over the face of a corpse, the digitally-blurred masturbation sessions, the scrum-pile of naked, hooded bodies – knocked the Regime temporarily off-stride. As their long-somnolent enablers in the media began to ask – timorously, tentatively – a few awkward questions, the Bushists were thrown into a PR panic.

They were not disturbed by the reality of the atrocities, of course; it was the pictures that were the offense. They disturbed the meticulously wrought fantasy world, the alternative reality that the Bushists had wrought for public consumption. And so Bush manfully stepped forward to offer a supreme sacrifice: he would, at last, tear down the hateful symbol of Abu Ghraib, and generously replace it, at American expense, with – a hospital? a memorial to Saddam's victims? a big ole shopping mall? No; Bush proposed, with all the pursed-lipped sincerity he could muster, to replace Abu Ghraib prison with – another prison.

Meanwhile a few bits of cannon fodder would be sacrificed on the altar of PR expediency: fall guys for big wheels, scapegoats of the empire. For the orders which they had carried out with such exemplary dispatch had issued from a system created at Bush's command. Long before, just weeks after the September 11 attacks, at Bush's request the Justice Department and Pentagon constructed a weasel-worded framework of legal perversions proclaiming that the president had the "inherent power" to set aside any law and order any crime whatsoever in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the "war on terror." Page after page of (forgive the pun) tortured reasoning and sinister ingenuity were devoted to producing novel "legal doctrines" that could "render specific conduct otherwise criminal not unlawful." The specific crimes Bush sought to indemnify were clearly spelled out in the documents: "cruelty, oppression and maltreatment; reckless endangerment; assault; maiming; involuntary manslaughter; unpremeditated murder."

(As noted here earlier, premeditated murder had already been taken care of, in a series of Executive Orders signed by Bush, beginning in November 2001, which gave lower-level CIA agents and "Special Forces" ops the authority to carry out "targeted assassinations," i.e., murder, of suspected terrorists, at their own discretion.)

Crime in the name of law, savagery in the name of civilization, destruction in the name of order – the transvaluation of all values. Never had the true nature of the Bushist beast been so nakedly exposed. It was now clear beyond the shadow of a doubt – to anyone who cared to see – that the United States was entering the final phase of its long mutation into a military autocracy, a "Commander-in-Chief State," where liberty is no longer the birthright of the people but the gift of an absolute ruler, whether "elected" or not. It is in fact a peculiarly American, 21st-century fascism – a bizarre amalgam of corporatism, militarism, religiosity and sentimentality, sustained by fear, by endless war, by the relentless construction of "enemies" at home and abroad, and, above all, by terror: the terror it delivers and the terror it receives.

As high summer began to burn in 2004, the year of decision, there could no longer be any mistake about the kind of America the Bush Regime was offering to the people. Millions seemed ready to embrace the new imperium; millions of others bristled in dissent. The die, as they say, was cast. Would Americans learn to drink that blood, and call it wine?

**Postscript, 2005: Well, we know the answer to that one, don't we?**

Chris Floyd