Monday, May 31, 2004

Abu Ghraibs in America

Bob Herbert points out that perhaps the torture of Iraqi citizens in Abu Ghraib prison wasn't such an abberation, because that's the way Americans routinely treat our own prisoners in the United States:

Not only are inmates at prisons in the U.S. frequently subjected to similarly grotesque treatment, but Congress passed a law in 1996 to ensure that in most cases they were barred from receiving any financial compensation for the abuse.

We routinely treat prisoners in the United States like animals. We brutalize and degrade them, both men and women. And we have a lousy record when it comes to protecting well-behaved, weak and mentally ill prisoners from the predators surrounding them.

Very few Americans have raised their voices in opposition to our shameful prison policies. And I'm convinced that's primarily because the inmates are viewed as less than human.
(Johnathan Cohn recently made the same point in The New Republic, but the excellent article requires a subscription. Here and here are other commentaries.)

It's a perfectly valid and shocking point: It is already American policy to treat prisoners as inhuman. Whatever torturous and inhumane conditions inmates are subjected to, the prevailing attitude is, "well, they deserved it." As Herbert points out in his op-ed, the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act specifically prohibits inmates from receiving compensation for abuse if they can't prove physical injury. So many of the abuses which occurred at Abu Ghraib -- the stripping naked and piling prisoners on top of each other, forcing prisoners to masturbate, scaring them with attack dogs, forcing them to eat out of toilets -- is impliedly sanctioned in the United States. The soldiers and officers who committed or sanctioned the torture in Iraq aren't so much "bad apples" as they simply reflect what already happens in this country.


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