Between Two Deaths
Does anyone still remember ‘Comical Ali’, Saddam’s information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who, in his daily press conferences, heroically stuck to the Iraqi line in the face of the most glaring evidence? (He was still claiming that TV footage of US tanks on the streets of Baghdad were just Hollywood special effects when the tanks were only a few hundred yards from his office.) He didn’t always fail to make sense, however. Confronted with claims that the US army was already in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: ‘They are not in control of anything – they don’t even control themselves!’ I was reminded of that when news of the weird goings-on in the Abu Ghraib prison broke a few weeks ago.
Vol. 26 No. 13 · 8 July 2004
Slavoj Žižek may be right to say that the photos from Abu Ghraib offer ‘an insight into “American values”’ (LRB, 3 June). But he doesn’t make clear what he means. What is striking – indeed, unbearable – about the images is the way they casually mix two genres: the exposé of atrocity and the holiday snapshot. To understand how this is possible requires that we grasp what it is to be a dominant culture and so to have a culture of dominance. It would mean untangling the strains of triumphalism that run through American culture, from the way we celebrate victories on the sports field to the festivals of public shamelessness and humiliation visible on ‘reality’ TV shows. It would mean reflecting on the contradictions of the ‘volunteer’ or ‘professional’ military, increasingly composed of mercenary outfits shored up by poorly trained reservists and National Guard units. It would mean taking into account the changing US prison system, itself increasingly subject to privatisation, and the employment opportunities it provides in economically marginalised areas of the country (including the corner of Appalachia that most of the Abu Ghraib guards called home) as well as the racial supremacism it breeds. It would certainly mean taking a hard look at the temptation of dominant powers and their representatives to feel they are above the law, including the laws of war, which they happen to be in the process of making.
All this, and one would not yet have begun to think about the work of the camera: the ubiquity and availability of digital images, including pornographic images, their role in abetting torture and humiliation as well as rendering it yawningly routine (to the point of being used as screen-savers on public computers), the cheery poses struck by the guards as they look proudly out at us, expecting approval.
Žižek touches none of this. He cannot even be bothered to make his remark about the ‘outsourcing’ of torture properly. The US does outsource torture, when it wants it done well: the term for handing suspects over to other countries for strenuous interrogation is ‘rendition’.
Slavoj Žižek, commenting on the Abu Ghraib photographs, says: ‘You can find similar photographs in the US press whenever an initiation rite goes wrong in an army unit or on a high school campus’. The photographs have had such an impact precisely because ‘similar photographs’ are never published in the mainstream media, in the US or abroad. I read the New Yorker story in which they first appeared on a crowded train on the Washington DC Metro, and I could sense the eyes of other passengers drawn to the page, shocked by the intrusion of such ugliness into the workaday environment. And Žižek ’s argument that ‘the Iraqi prisoners were effectively being initiated into American culture,’ a culture grounded in obscenity, is as insulting as it is without merit. There is nothing American about pornography, which is perhaps the only universal global language.