Monday, March 31, 2008

The Children of Abu Graib

This is not an atrocity blog. I promise this sort of thing won't become a daily feature. But I spent a long while crying about this today, and then I decided to turn those tears into outraged action. Since I can't singlehandedly shut down Abu Ghraib, I can only write about it - and urge y'all to vote for candidates who seem likely to shutter that hellhole forever.

In the not-quite-latest New Yorker, there's a profile of Sabrina Harman, the woman who took most of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, that's as insightful as it is chilling. The authors, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, use extensive interviews with Harman and several of her fellow MPs to illuminate how a bunch of young people who mostly just wanted to subsidize their college education gradually became inured to torture. Or nearly so; it turns out that Harman's pictures were motivated by a mixture of macabre fascination, gallows humor, and a partly-inchoate awareness that she was partaking in atrocities that needed to be documented.

The whole article is long and upsetting but very much worth your time. For me, the most upsetting part is Harman's comments about children being held in Abu Ghraib. Yep, that's right - kids as young as ten were locked up, generally in order to coerce confessions from their fathers.

You may be asking: Wait, don't you mean Saddam's Abu Ghraib? Well, yes, Saddam also imprisoned and raped family members to extract confessions. But guess what: We didn't just take over his prison, we took over some of his most heinous tactics.

Gourevitch and Morris write:
It was easier to be nice to the women and children on Tier 1B [than to the adult male prisoners], but, Harman said, “It was kind of sad that they even had to be there.” The youngest prisoner on the tier was just ten years old—“a little kid,” she said. “He could have fit through the bars, he was so little.” Like a number of the other kids and of the women there, he was being held as a pawn in the military’s effort to capture or break his father.

Harman enjoyed spending time with the kids. She let them out to run around the tier in a pack, kicking a soccer ball, and she enlisted them to help sweep the tier and distribute meals—special privileges, reserved only for the most favored prisoners on the M.I. block. “They were fun,” she said. “They made the time go by faster.” She didn’t like seeing children in prison “for no reason, just because of who your father was,” but she didn’t dwell on that. What was the point? “You can’t feel because you’ll just go crazy, so you just kind of blow it off,” Harman said. “You can only make their stay a little bit acceptable, I guess. You give them all the candy from the M.R.E.s to make their time go by better. But there’s only so much you can do or so much you can feel.”
But even this account plays down the horror of it, though the article otherwise doesn't pull many punches. Since Gourevitch and Morris have kindly posted some of their primary source material at the New Yorker online, you can read in the interview transcript that the ball playing petered out as the prison grew increasingly overcrowded. Said Harman:
It got filled up pretty fast, so fast that we couldn’t take the children out anymore and they had to stay in their cells. We used to let them out and play ball with them. Like, just let them out in the tier and locked the main lock, like the main door so they couldn’t get out. And we’d have like 20 kids just running around and we couldn’t do it anymore because these other prisoners were coming in. These…We had people that were crazy and we had people that were just causing problems and we just couldn’t let them out because you don’t want them talking to these other people or passing them notes or corrupting the kids. So we had to keep the kids inside also. So it was pretty much like they were also being interrogated pretty much because they were in a cell. Maybe if you were one of the lucky ones, you would get out for like a half hour to help pass around food or go take your shower, or if you want a cold shower. But it was getting really crowded.
(Read the rest of Harman's comments on the children.)
We had people that were crazy. Yeah, I know she means prisoners who'd snapped, but what about her direct superiors, who put Harman and the other MPs into a situation without any training, apparently precisely so they wouldn't know that they were being ordered and encouraged to violate U.S. military and international law on the treatment of prisons? What about their superiors - all the way up to and including Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush?

I do recall Sy Hersh referring to women and children being raped in Abu Ghraib shortly after the first torture photos became public, but I had no clue that their detention was a systematic, long-term practice as opposed to a few isolated incidents. And I'm one of the people who's paying attention, most of the time. (For a round-up of the "old news" on this, see this American Leftist post from July 2004 and also Hersh's comments as reported in Salon's War Room.)

What I want to know - and what I can't figure out, despite having googled it like crazy - is this: Are children still being held in U.S. military and CIA prisons today?

Maybe we'll get an answer to this from the New Yorker article's co-author, Errol Morris, who has directed a documentary on Abu Ghraib, S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, that won a jury prize at the Berlinale and is scheduled for release in the U.S. later this month. Or maybe, like so much else about this war, we won't know the answer even when the historians get their say.

One thing I do know for sure: Holding family members hostage to extract a prisoner's confession violates international law. Our next president better know this, too.


Sugarmag said...

I did not know there were children there. Of course I knew about Abu Graib (it would have been hard to miss) and it was obvious that lower level soldiers were taking the fall when the responsibility really lies with the highest levels of our government. This article shows that it was even worse that I thought. I am deeply ashamed.

Sungold said...

Yeah, I'm ashamed, too, Sugar Mag, and angry, and just not sure where to direct these feelings. It seems like those responsible should have a taste of their own medicine: picture Abu Ghraib reopened as a permanent residence for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, John Yee (the dude who wrote the DoJ memos justifying torture), Gonzales ... man, we could fill that place to overcrowding again. Oh, and throw in Bill Kristol, too, for good measure. He could phone in his NYT column from his cell.

Man, these guys bring out my vengeful streak. And I'm ordinarily a really pacifistic person.

Sugarmag said...

No, more suffering would not undo what has been done and the thought doesn't make me feel better. I do agree that the Bush administration should be held accountable, though.

The reason why this whole thing bothers me is I want our country to be better than that. There have been times when our country has done the right thing, for example post war Germany, and that is how we as a nation should conduct ourselves all of the time. When I was a kid, friends of my grandparents had been German POWs and as old men, they loved peanut butter and loved Americans. I want to be proud of our country like I was then.

My concern is also for American soldiers. When we lower the standards in this way, we make torture of Americans justifiable and that really scares me, too.

Sungold said...

You're right; vengeance doesn't solve anything. But I *would* like to see some justice for these fellows. An American prison sounds like a decent compromise.

Postwar Germany is a great example of how to do it right. Of course, we had an unconditional surrender in hand, which helps. My father-in-law, who died 12 years ago, used to go on and on about how good the white bread was that he had as a POW in an American camp after the war. I had old people in Berlin - strangers - tell me how grateful they were for the airlift. This is how you make friends and build a lasting peace.

ThePoliticalCat said...

I knew about this (as you mention, Sy Hersh talked about it), and I was afraid that it was ongoing. Dear God, what can be said for these people? War criminals one and all. Imprisoning children under conditions amounting to torture and in complete contravention of basic human decency, let alone any conventions dealing with human rights.

As for the German POWs vs. Iraq &mdash this is the result of a racist mindset that would deny that Iraqis are just as human as Germans with the full rights that human status entails. Sorry, I'm watching a Japanese film this week about the end of WWII and it's painful.

Sungold said...

Yes, you're absolutely right about the racism, TPC. We had profoundly different policies in Asia and in Europe after WWII. And it wasn't only due to the Cold War initially playing out mostly in Eastern Europe.