After the Bombs, a Broom Handle Is Nothing

New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview
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After the Bombs, a Broom Handle Is Nothing


And so it has come to this. Just over a year ago, President George W Bush, in his premature announcement of victory, stated that "there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves" in Iraq. Now we learn of torture in the very same Abu Ghraib prison that became so notorious under Saddam Hussein. The defenders of the American and British invasion are reduced to saying that Abu Ghraib saw worse and more frequent torture under Saddam but that, while he was in power, nobody ever saw the pictures. The old regime, these apologists argue, used torture as a central instrument of state policy. The difference now is that torture is an aberration--a "breakdown in discipline", as the US army vice-chief of staff calls it--which will be duly investigated, punished and compensated and surely not repeated. All the better if it can be proved that the guilty interrogators worked for private contractors: privatisation is now the established way for politicians to evade responsibility.

Yet responsibility is not so easily shrugged off. It was the Bush administration that branded Iraq as a member of the "axis of evil", its leaders holding weapons of mass destruction that imminently threatened the west, and its regime complicit in the attacks on America on 11 September 2001. It was the Bush administration which decided that the Iraqi army and police force should be disbanded because anybody associated with the Ba'ath regime must be suspect. It was the Bush administration, and its allies in London, that portrayed resistance to the US occupation as the work of Saddamist remnants, terrorists, members of al-Qaeda and dangerous fanatics who were beyond reason. It was the Bush administration that kept Abu Ghraib open, rather as the Soviets kept Buchenwald open after the conquest of Germany in 1945.

Should we be at all surprised that soldiers and interrogators thought they were dealing with deadly enemies who had forfeited all human rights? Should we be surprised that governments which seem so careless of civil liberties at home among their own people should be even more careless overseas? As Kevin Toolis points out (page 8), human rights abuse is historically the norm rather than the exception among occupying powers. Conquering armies expect to take trophies. And if their colleagues in other sections of the armed forces can kill and maim thousands of civilians from a distance with bombs and shells, why would any soldier think it wrong to use broom handles, dog chains and cold water at close quarters?

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