What if there were no photos?


An Iraqi woman holds a young boy as they wait for the release of a loved one at the U.S. run prison of Abu Ghraib.

"Be on notice," said Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 7. The worst may be yet to come. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Committee, put it in more blunt terms: "The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder here. We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience." These ominous warnings speak of even worse abuse than the disgusting photos released by "60 Minutes II" reveal. There was a special women's section. There are even videos. 

As this scandal widens--and America's image and credibility is further decimated--I can not help but ask myself, "What if there were no photos?" What if "60 Minutes II" and The New Yorker did not release the photographs and details of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison? Would there have been such a loud and deafening cry of outrage here in America? No, there would not, because it is likely that we Americans would never have known about it. 

Allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers have been leveled way before this current scandal broke out. In a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), leaked to the Wall Street Journal, some of the abuse was described as "tantamount to torture," and the report said that ICRC began briefing U.S. officials in May 2003, when Iraq was "liberated" and the President declared "mission accomplished." In October 2003, human rights groups had warned top American officials about sexually humiliating practices at Abu Ghraib prison. In fact, Nicole Choueiry, Middle East spokeswoman for Amnesty International in London, said: "[The Coalition Provisional Authority] knew about [the abuse of prisoners] for a long time." 

The damning report by Army Maj. General Antonio M. Taguba, which found "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" inflicted on detainees, was completed in late February but detailed abuses committed between October and December of 2003. Yet, according to Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, a major investigation into the Army's prison system was already under way in July 2003. This, along with reports by human rights groups, strongly suggest that abuse of Iraqi prisoners has been occurring for a very long time and was much more widespread than U.S. officials contend. Pierre Kraehenbuel, director of ICRC operations, said: "Our findings do not allow us to conclude that what we are dealing with...were isolated acts of individual members of coalition forces. What we have described is a pattern and a broad system." 

None of this was known to the American public before the ugly pictures were released. In fact, the Washington Post reported that "U.S. officials said Rumsfeld and the Pentagon resisted appeals in recent months from the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority to deal with problems relating to detainees." A senior State Department official said, "It's something Powell has raised repeatedly--to release as many detainees as possible--and, second, to ensure that those in custody are properly cared for and treated." What's more, Senator Carl Levin, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a hearing about the scandal: "And finally, Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers, I join our chairman in expressing deep dismay that when you briefed senators in a classified session last week on events in Iraq, just hours before the story broke on television, you made no reference to the impending revelations." 

To his credit, Secretary Rumsfeld took full responsibility for his actions: "Let me be clear," he told the Committee, "I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including the President and the members of Congress." Nevertheless, had the pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse not surfaced, the American people would most likely have been completely oblivious to the serious violations of human rights being committed by U.S. soldiers. This does every American a huge disservice. 

U.S. soldiers are the face of this country before the rest of the world. Everything they do, they do in all of our names. Thank God, the overwhelming majority of them give our country a wonderful name. But if they commit crimes, especially ones as heinous as those at Abu Ghraib, they stain all of America and every single American. Unfair perhaps, but true nonetheless. Far too many times has the American public been kept in the dark about the dubious actions of its government and military around the world. We need to know more about what our government does in our name. This is an essential part of the proper functioning of a democracy. To get caught with our pants down, to get "blindsided" by hideous photographs of sexual abuse of prisoners and then scramble to save face has done damage that is irreversible and irreparable. 

The American public should have been notified about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners much sooner. It was not, and this is wrong. Furthermore, the allegations of abuse by U.S. soldiers, without the pictures, should have been enough to rouse the ire that has been roused in America. They did not, however, because they were only words, and "Words don't do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane, all of which is true, that it was blatant, you read that and it's one thing. You see the photographs, and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged..." I hate to say it, but you are absolutely right, Mr. Secretary. You are absolutely right.

 

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is author of "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for 2003 Best Religion Book of the Year by the Religion Communicators Council.


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  19 Comments   Comment

  1. Syed Hossain from Bangladesh

    There were a number of deaths of Iraqi prisoners in prison as well, not only abuse. Are these not murders? And who is say that all of them are terrorist? The death of Berg was, as his own family put it, was swift. How many thousands of civilians died because of American bombing on Iraq? The pentagon even refuses to provide count. What did the Iraqis do to America? When if ever they were a threat to US? America invaded Iraq, not the other way round.

  2. The Mac from UK

    I dont believe anyone knows the URL to the mythical "Alqaida website" this originated from. The other thing is that the timing; coming on the heels of the torture scandal, this seems like a diversionary tactic. Finally, can anyone imagine, the iraqi resistance, actually has time to setup websites and do video captures and screw around with stuff like this. The thing that makes me most suspicious however, is that Mr.Berg had originally been in the custody of the US army in Iraq. There is a lot here that just doesnt add up.

  3. The Mac from UK

    Turns out Muslims from Al-Azhar all the way to CAIR have CONDEMNED the beheading of an American in Iraq, in stark contrast to the majority of Americans who fully support the torture of the Iraqi people. Then again, a majority of Americans supported the rape of Iraq, believed lies that Saddam has involved in 9/11 in cohoots with Bin Laden.

    The difference speaks for itself.

  4. AAhmed from UK

    The posts of these putrid apologists for empire speak volumes. Torturing and raping innocent Iraqi men and woman is OK, taking the life of invaders coming from trailer parks is a no-no.

    ..Get over yourselves, nobody wants your "sympathy," you shouldnt have been in Iraq from the start. What do you expect the Iraqis to do ? Greet you with flowers after you murdered nearly 2 million of them over the last 12 years ?

  5. Lee Glaesemann from USA

    Asalaam alaikum, brothers and sisters:

    The world must understand that the beheading of American Marc Berg was completely illegal under Islamic Shariah law. If you have forgotten, a Muslim's number one priority is to convince a captive to become a Muslim, not to apostacize by saying Allah Akbar after slaughtering an innocent civilian. Our Prophet(PBUH)clearly gave us guidelines that we are not to touch civilians in warfare. I know I may anger many Muslims when I say this, so I'll quote what Hamza Yusuf said in a presentation: "Unfortunately, too often, we are an ummah with no brains." Brothers, when are we going to wake up and realize that these actions serve the popular stereotype that Islam is a violent faith bent on exterminating those who aren't like them? To the rest of the Muslims living outside the United States and Canada: we really need your help in stoping these extremists who are highjacking our beautiful deen. Whatever you do, in the name of Allah, don't buy into their fanatical viewpoints and their pointless indoctrination. If they say anything at all, first check the Quran and Sunnah. If these extremists had checked the Quran, they would have realized that beheading this American would have done nothing but put them in the hellfire and would made life more difficult for Muslims around the world.

  6. msKulily from USA

    Do you really think they needed to put all those pictures on the net and news? DO you think that the American would have died if they didnt do that???? Come on we know for a fact that our military can keep secrets why the hell didnt they do it this time Maybe would have saved a LIFE!!! But who are we to say, we are not the intelegents of the military.. But if we had someone that was smart there it may have never happened

  7. Nick Cameron from United States

    If there were no photos, then the Muslim world might react with less "enthusiasm". For Americans to understand the anger of the Muslim world, they should read the following story...

    http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/05/11/iraq.main/index.html

    ...and then try to watch the video. Of course, what the Muslim terrorists did was much worse.

  8. Mike D from US

    Another video released of Muslim brutality towards prisoners. An American citizen neither a soldier or worker had his throat slit and was beheaded by a gang of Muslim thugs. There's a saying that goes in order to pull the speck out your brothers eye you must remove the plank from your own. This is the second prisoner held by Muslims executed in as many weeks. The peace of Muslims demonstrated yet again.

  9. Jose Schmo from Canada

    after the beheading article on Cnn it's hard to feel any sympathy for a naked pyramid.

  10. Mike from USA

    I need some help. I honestly don't understand.

    Why would people who hold Islamic beliefs want to live in the U.S.?

    I am not being judgemental on what is right or wrong but...

    I don't understand.

    Michael Serve

    Pittsford, New York

  11. Kovitz from Canada

    Mike D,

    ..."One last thing though where was the article and outrage when several Muslims executed an Itilian prisoner they were holding?"

    That's by-product of the tortures.

  12. Sa'eed Roderick Purcell from USA

    With the help of all Allaah's Names; the Generally Merciful, the Especially Merciful I begin to write. I pray that the Peace and Security be upon you all, and Allaah's Mercy, and His Blessings. Amen.

    First, let me begin by saying that I agree, in general, with the main thrust of this article. Having stated that, I would like to allude to one subtle detail that bears examination. The author repeatedly referred to the American government as our government, or words to that effect. While I believe I understand why he chooses to say this, I must disagree. As Muslims who claim to adhere to al-Islaam, our government was, is, and always will be what Allaah has said and then His Messenger as understood and implemented by our righteous predecessors. For us to identify any man-made system as our government is a serious error in judgement. By that does the author mean to imply that it represents our vision for the government better than al-Islaam -- we take refuge with Allaah from such thoughts and statements! Any law, or system of law, which has as its' foundation man made principles will inevitable fail. As the Prophet (Allaah's Prayers and Peace be upon him) said, "Every one of the Children of Aadam committ mistakes." It cannot be devoid of errors. Our salvation, . . . the salvation of the world is to be found in complete submission and obedience to it's Creator and Sustainer, nothing else! To conceive otherwise would be to fly in the face of the Creator's own Words. I pray that Allaah rewards us and you with good, and guides us to the straight path . . . His Path.

  13. bob p from isa

    I am very ashamed that this happened here....But the fact that it was not supressed is very encouraging....I cannot imagine this type of scrutiny to be anywhere in the Arab World....

    Yes.........democracy does work....We as a nation are far from perfection...........This does not reflect America as a whole..........

  14. ahmed from usa

    How sad if there were no photos. But again, it is also sad that there are no photos to show all the prison abuses in the Muslim/Arab countries and also Israel.

  15. Sami from USA

    More damning than the abuse itself is the way the authorities are dealing with it.

    For them it is more of a PR than a moral issue. It is all about the US image. That may explain why the people in charge didn't do much about it even when they knew it was going on. Problem is, this mindset won't prevent the abuse from happening again. You may paint the best image money can buy but that wont help if there is no substance to it.

  16. The Mac from UK

    Abu Ghraib is nothing less than a showcase for the CIA's fifty years of torture knowledge gleaned from working field experiments practiced by its various clients -- from the Tonton Macoutes in Haiti to the death squads of General Castelo Branco in Brazil to General Suharto in Indonesia (approximately 1,000,000 "communists" tortured and killed with the helping hand of the CIA) to the notorious CIA torturer Dan Mitrione in Uruguay (executed by the Tupamaros for his warmth and fuzziness) to Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer (2,000 political opponents arrested without trial, then tortured, raped, and executed) and beyond -- the list is quite long and horrifying and unknown by the American people.

    Of course, the CIA is always open to new techniques and that's why they consulted the Israelis, who are experts on humiliating and "softening up" Arabs. For instance, it is well known that the filthy and stinking hoods used on so many detainees at Abu Ghraib was pioneered by the Israelis. So was verbal and sexual humiliation. Before this US intelligence recruited plenty of Nazi thugs who had experience in torture... so what came first, the chicken or the egg?

  17. rajawali from Teganu

    if there were no photos, then we might do not see the modern civilization is all about.

  18. Al from UK

    Read "mike d's" spin eveybody. An "isolated incident," is how we are supposed to react and believe to the daily war crimes of self proclaimed defenders of human rights. The actions of these animals is standard practice in the US military.

    Muslim outrage is reserved for those who are innocent and the invaded and occupied, not for murderous invading crusader .. who kill men, woman and children.

  19. Mike D from US

    The torturing of Iraqi prisoners is deplorable and unacceptable. I believe it is isolated, I mean being a POW is not going to be a picnic. But soldiers are supposed to treat them humanely. The ones who are convicted will get tried found guilty and spend years in jail. I think it really is the Army when I was in the Marines I always found the Army very unprofessional and untrained. That's my general impression. There actions bring shame on America and on the military. If it were up to me they would hang for it.

    One last thing though where was the article and outrage when several Muslims executed an Itilian prisoner they were holding?