Willing Torturers

While I usually respect Anne Applebaum‘s analysis of international affairs, this morning’s column, “Willing Torturers,” is just asinine. She makes rather wild leaps between genocide under Hitler, Stalin, and the Rwandan Hutus and the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanimo. By invoking these connections, which she then half dismisses, she diminishes a much narrower but cogent point:

The American soldiers and civilians responsible for humiliating, torturing and possibly murdering Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad over the past few months do not belong in the same category as Nazi or Soviet camp guards. But their actions do prove, if further proof were needed, that no culture is incapable of treating its enemies as subhuman. We’ve now seen the horrific evidence: American soldiers, brought up in an American culture, stripped and sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners. They dressed them in black hoods and laughingly threatened them with electrocution.

They also took photographs of themselves, grinning and pretending to shoot at the genitals of their captives, even though the prisoners came from a society that values physical modesty, even though some of the guards were women. Finally, they took photographs of at least one other Iraqi who had, apparently, been beaten to death. Those responsible did not commit these acts because they were Americans, although some will surely say so. But nor did being American stop them.


National outrage is mounting, and that’s a good thing. None of which should distract us from the deeper point: Yes, America is a beacon of democracy. But Americans are still as capable of torture as anyone else. Rumsfeld said yesterday that it was “un-American” to abuse prisoners — as if Americans were still somehow exempt from the passions that grip the rest of the human race. But we aren’t, and because we aren’t, we shouldn’t dispense with rules that have been designed to contain them.

While I agree that civilization is a rather thin veneer and that people can revert to barbarism under the right conditions, unless these abuses are far more widespread than the evidence now indicates, it doesn’t appear that’s the case here.

The leap from the fact that some Americans commits bad acts to the moral relativism Applebaum suggests is strained at best. The acts at Abu Ghraib were “un-American” because almost all Americans find them outrageous and revolting. Could one say that the much more severe brutalities committed against the four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah recently were “un-Arab”? Certainly, not in the same sense. There are deviants in any culture. No one seriously argues that Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson are symbolic of American culture; they were individuals who committed unthinkable acts and nothing more.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.