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.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:
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.”
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.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?
(Read the rest of Harman's comments on the children.)
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.