American Democracy Ten Years after Abu Ghraib

John Agresto

The year 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the revelations of American abuse in an Iraqi prison just outside of Baghdad called Abu Ghraib. It was, before we Americans arrived, one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious killing places, a veritable slaughterhouse of torment and death. Rumor was that here is where Saddam tortured his enemies with acid, with electrocution, with amputations, and with electric drills. American forces took over the facility soon after we entered Baghdad, and it then no longer housed common criminals or Saddam’s political enemies but primarily those Iraqis we suspected of insurgent attacks on our troops.

From 2003 until mid-2004, I worked in Baghdad as a Pentagon civilian, helping repair Iraq’s destroyed system of higher education. For months before the news broke, I heard rumors of evil things still going on at Abu Ghraib. But this time, the reports were that we Americans were the culprits.

It was during those months that professors, administrators, and students would come up to me when I visited this or that campus and beg me to help get a relative or an associate out of Abu Ghraib. The story was almost always the same: The person had been picked up by our soldiers by mistake, taken there for detention and questioning, and was not being released. And my response was always the same: “While it might well be an accident that the person was arrested, I’m certain, if indeed he’s truly innocent, that he will soon be let go. And if he’s guilty, well, then, everyone is better off.” To which the reply was, again, always the same—“You don’t understand, Dr. John, he’s at Abu Ghraib!”

It was becoming clear that it was more than simply the memory of past slaughters that so worried the Iraqis. Something was going on at this place that was so foul—so shameful, as we ultimately found out—that my interlocutors thought it a disgrace even to describe what they had heard.

Soon, however, the entire world knew what the Iraqis whispered among themselves. The world saw the pictures and heard the stories—a naked man being dragged like a dog with a leash around his neck, held by a smiling female soldier; a man in a hood with wires attached to his arms; older men raping younger men; female soldiers smearing menstrual blood on the faces of the captives; men lined up against a wall—again naked—with a female soldier pointing to their private parts, laughing… The world cried “torture.” But what the world saw was different from torture—and, to Iraqis, something worse than torture.

“Cruelty,” one of my Iraqi translators would tell me, “is in our DNA.” And, to be sure, Iraqis were hardly strangers to torture. What Saddam and his sons and military did was indeed torture, and torture of the most barbaric sort. But neither Saddam nor the Iraqis were alone in this. Throughout the Middle East and surely far beyond it, torture has always been a way of life and of death. Not torture simply—or even usually—to extract information, but torture to punish, to degrade, to make the last hours of life so horrible that death, when it finally comes, is a blessing.

Nor, of course, is the Middle East alone in this. Romans, Chinese, Africans, Polynesians—all have been experts at lingering deaths. To have one’s abdomen slit and his bowels pulled out and burned before his eyes was a particularly torturous way of punishing Englishmen convicted of treason in Merrie Olde England.

So why was Abu Ghraib after the fall of Saddam different? Yes, I can believe that prisoners were tortured there to extract needed information. I would not doubt that others might have been tortured, even to death, by soldiers enraged at the murder of their comrades. None of this would have surprised or shocked any Iraqi. They had experienced all that and worse. What they couldn’t understand was the sexuality, the degrading sodomy, the perverse giddiness of it all, and the women.

I mean by this that the Iraqi interpretation of what our soldiers did at Abu Ghraib was markedly different than what the world thought was happening. Iraqis did not see torture. What the Iraqis saw was debasement, not physical pain; sexual humiliation, not disfigurement. Or, if it was disfigurement, it was not that of the body but of the soul.

Abu Ghraib displayed not only Americans’ abandonment to perverse sexuality, up to and including homoerotic sadism, but also the willingness of American women to be photographed sexually abusing naked men, and the elation that they all seemed to display not only at degrading Iraqis but at degrading their own natures as well. Even Saddam, with his death squads and torture chambers, had not thought to use women, or to force men onto men, in so shameful a manner.

The American response to Abu Ghraib was, in all candor, totally insufficient. To say that these were rogue acts of poorly supervised young men and women was to admit that we Americans put into positions of power over Iraqis degenerates who, because they weren’t properly supervised, were simply acting as they would naturally. To say that they were improperly trained implied, again, that our young men and women need to be “trained” not to act as brutes; that this is what our soldiers do when left in their own custody. But the worst response, yet perhaps the most common (though it was more often than not said quietly, as if the speaker knew it was shameful), was that it was no big deal: “Yes, men were forced to perform before strangers and before women; yes, they were sexually ridiculed and humiliated—but our people weren’t really torturing them, they were just having some fun.” To those for whom “fun” is a high virtue, such an answer may be sufficient. But to those for whom honor and morality are paramount, such an answer is part of the problem.

Let me try to put Abu Ghraib into a wider context: Immediately after liberation, those Iraqis who most feared and hated Saddam—especially those who knew English fairly well—flocked to the Green Zone to work with the Coalition. Many, if not most, harbored thoughts of someday coming to America, leaving that ferocious hell-hole called Iraq far behind them.

But over the months the image of America began to tarnish and, slowly, a few began to change their minds. It’s not that they no longer saw America as the land of freedom and infinite possibility, but, oddly, because they did. Some were concerned that they might not get a job, or a good job, in the States. In Iraq, after all, everyone was assured a job, even under Saddam. Some told me they worried that after coming to America they might be evicted from their apartment, or fired for no good reason. Stories were everywhere that in America the boss could give your job away to someone else, or the company might go under, or the landlord might think he could get more from other tenants. Yes, many of them had relatives in America who told them that it wasn’t anything like that; but they all now had television, and they all heard the endlessly hyped media stories about homelessness and the unemployed.

Yes, they knew that in a free country there might be no limit to how far one might rise, or how well-off one might become; no limit to what one might make of oneself. But there were no assurances either; and many of them had been so cowed by tyranny and enervated by an always-watchful socialist state that they were scared. They were beaten down and, in a sense, infantilized; freedom now seemed not exhilarating but frightening.

And more. If the first concern the Iraqis had about freedom was the uncertainty of it, the second problem was the impiety of it. I remember one earnest young man from the State Department telling an assembled group of tribal leaders that, yes, there is extensive freedom of religion in America, where a person can practice his religion without fear of persecution. As far as I could tell, this seemed to everyone assembled a reasonably good thing. The young man then added that not only would no one be persecuted for his beliefs, but that religious people of every creed live peacefully and equally with one another, even with people who chose not to believe in God. With that remark, I could see this thought cross every face: “Why is this good? Why would anyone be proud of a place where ignoring God is something people praise?” Finally, someone asked what amounted to this question: “Could a person in America be free to speak against God, or curse God?” To which the awkward response was, “Well, yes. I mean, in America we have freedom of speech as well as of religion, so, er, while I’m not saying that would be a good thing…” The answer was, of course, true, and for a number of important reasons we Americans would not change it. But to the assembled believers, what we see as central and vital freedoms seemed dangerous, impious, and wicked.

Which leads us directly back to Abu Ghraib. America’s enemies in the region had for decades said that America is not only an irreligious and even blasphemous place, but something perhaps even worse: America is a place where freedom and democracy mean the worst of human immorality. America is “the Great Satan,” with all the temptations of the Devil and all the allure of his depravity.

Sure, our enemies would preach, Americans talk all the time about democracy and freedom as if they are good and beautiful things. And maybe at one time in America they were. But, today, we all see what freedom and democracy mean in America—that the cohesion of family life is broken, that drug use is common and defended, that sexual perversion is seen as a right, that children and adolescents are ungoverned and engage in behavior that would make a caliph blush, and that all the norms of religion and morality that were cultivated over the centuries and that supported that restraint and self-discipline that made freedom more than simply self-interest are now actively scoffed at and derided by Americans who consider themselves enlightened and progressive.

Back then, when Iraqis looked at American higher education, they saw engineering and medicine and computer science, and they were attracted. But what would they have thought if they looked more particularly at the humanities or the social sciences or our colleges of liberal arts? Would they have been impressed by our relativism or our postmodernism or perhaps our myriad courses in sexual identity or feminist political activism? Perhaps they would have been impressed with how “critical thinking” went from being a cognate of “analysis” and became the byword for denigrating parents, tradition, or conventional moral norms? Need I mention all the extracurricular attributes of the modern university—binge drinking, slut walks, or the happy campus sex week? Regular readers of this journal can add lists of their own horrors.

In America, we saw Abu Ghraib as an aberration, an outlier of the culture. But many Iraqis and many ordinary Middle Easterners could only see it as indicative of our culture. It was as if all the slanders made about American society were not slanders at all.

Where are we ten years later? Despite the reversals we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq and despite the clear failure of the so-called “Arab Spring,” many Americans still hope that having “planted the seeds” of democracy here and there, someday the tree of liberty will bloom… Just give it time. Democracy, they say, ultimately grew in such unlikely places as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan, and is still developing in many of the nations under former Soviet domination. Just be patient. After all, we hear repeatedly, even our democracy took two centuries to work out as it did.

But what if what we are seeing is not simply the painfully slow growth of democratic liberty in the Middle East or even the “hijacking” of democratic revolutions as they arise, but the conscious rejection of democratic liberty as we understand it in the West? What if they understand—or think they understand—perfectly well what liberty entails—and they reject it? What if our notions of what it means to be free seem to produce a people and a culture directly opposite to the culture in which they wish to live? If, as democratic commentators as far back as Tocqueville have noted, modern democracy runs the constant risk of breaking all established ties, eroding traditional morality, and above all weakening the bonds of family and ancestry, then perhaps liberal democratic life is not something universally desired or desirable.

No, Abu Ghraib did not, on its own, turn the tide against America’s hope of bringing democratic liberty to the Middle East. It wasn’t dispositive but indicative. It added to the tide of sentiment against what America stands for. This was what their scholars and religious leaders had long predicted: Under a veneer of high-mindedness, America was corrupt. But it wasn’t a prediction as much as a visible fact—if American democracy is seen as license in the region, perhaps it is because it has become that for so many Americans. We hardly need a Solzhenitsyn to tell us that our schools and colleges have difficulty in explaining to our students the meaning, source, and limits of freedom—even those of us who teach American government and political philosophy have difficulty in describing the boundaries of liberty or why unlimited freedom is self-destructive freedom. And so long as the philosophic and political founders of our regime of equality and liberty are dismissed as dead white males or as hypocritical slaveholders and little more, then we may never again be able to explicate our most fundamental ideas.

To be sure, every honest Iraqi I worked with knew this debasement of American character wasn’t the whole story. For every soldier like Lynndie England or Charles Graner, the central figures in the Abu Ghraib disaster, there were scores of others who were moral, upright, and honest. The Iraqis knew there were soldiers like the captain I met from Florida, who every week took young Iraqi boys fishing with tackle he brought for them from the States. When I asked him why he would put his life in such danger, he replied that it wasn’t his job to worry about his life, but to help the Iraqis get back theirs.

But to the Iraqis, which was the real America? Every Iraqi I got to know was grateful for the overthrow of Saddam. If freedom meant final release from a brutal totalitarianism, they were on our side. If democracy meant greater economic security and opportunity, then it was to be praised. But if imitating American equality and freedom meant not simply a change of government but a radical change in a way of life and culture, then the situation was more problematic. What had sustained them over the years—for centuries, in fact—was family, tribe, and religion. In these they found meaning and safety. But, by 2004, what Iraqis saw on American television, what they witnessed in so many movies, what was told to them by leaders they respected, and now what they saw at Abu Ghraib, increasingly tilted the balance against us.

We are, today, witness to what is, to Americans, an almost unthinkable political phenomenon: Countries where the growth of democratic popular rule is leading to the disparagement of freedom and the rejection of the notion of rights. In many places—even in places where the West has spent billions in treasure and lost thousands of lives—repression and fanaticism have increased and the suppression of women and of ethnic, tribal, racial, and especially religious minorities has grown.

But, with freedom having lost her attraction, should we be surprised that the enemies of freedom have grown with the coming of popular rule? Where the street rules, equality and liberty will grow only if people want them to grow. If “freedom” and “rights” are not seen as good in themselves but, rather, as the very things that undermine traditions, morality, honor, and family life, why would they be desired? Where there is a general popular disdain for what appear to be the consequences of freedom, then democracy—rule by that same public—will hamper rather than help the full flowering of liberty in the world.

In America, we are oblivious to all this. Once, America seemed to understand that unbounded liberty was a problem for free societies. “Liberty,” Madison was so bold as to write in the Federalist Papers, “may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.” Once, Americans understood that what made freedom work, what made it desirable here and would make it desirable abroad, was that it was disciplined by mores and traditions—especially religious traditions—that encouraged such virtues as moderation and self-restraint. Is that still our understanding?

It is vital to America’s national interest that we do all in our power to cultivate liberal, orderly, moderate, and peaceful democracies abroad. But what can we do to make liberty and democracy, ideas so central to any decent and just modern society, become as central to others as they are to us? What can we do to make liberty once more the object of devotion rather than of fear or contempt?

Let me be as blunt as I can: America seems to all the world to have reached a point where there is no longer a line separating liberty from what used to be called licentiousness. Indeed, we hear from fellow citizens who think that any desire to hold to such a line must stem from either nasty prejudice or religious hokum. Even within the Republican Party, the partisans of traditional values, of “family” values, seem each day to lose ground to a surging “libertarian” wing, a faction whose policies on drug use, gay marriage, unfettered freedom of “expression,” and sometimes abortion seems indistinguishable from the ACLU Left. Across the nation—though still more prevalent on the coasts than in the heartland—how many of the old public and social constraints on what used to be viewed as wrong or immoral behavior are now gone, or ridiculed where they exist? (Consider: Religion, public decorum, parental authority… Hollywood, Fifty Shades of Grey, Miley Cyrus…)

But living as we do in what some have called a “rights-saturated” society has not only domestic consequences but also far-reaching effects abroad. We talk endlessly about how we have to understand others in this more multicultural age, but we seem blind to the most important things that make other cultures “other.” So we act in ways they find perplexing at best and shameful at worse, then wonder why the seeds of democratic liberty we have tried to plant abroad seem not to take root. Having made every desire a “right”; having weakened conventional social order in the name of self-expression and freedom; having set aside older views of obligation, self-restraint, responsibility, decency, and morality; having declared the equality of all so-called “lifestyle” choices; having condemned as religious prejudice any preference for traditional family arrangements; and having called on the world to “celebrate” every preference and orientation, we’ve made Freedom the father of what the vast majority of the world understands to be ignoble and immoral.

There are before us two paths, and perhaps only two paths. The first is the path of glad acceptance: Having followed freedom and the doctrine of equal rights to what we think is their logical conclusion—a place where all that feels good is allowed so long as it doesn’t discomfort the feelings of others—liberalism will have reached its culmination, its apotheosis in a place beyond the old binding cords of convention and stale, constricting moralism. Sadly, if that’s the case, then the liberty we thought worthy of proclaiming to the world will be rejected by much of that world.

The second path would require us to understand liberty and rights in a wider context, in a manner not unlike the way our Founders thought of them. Liberty is not doing anything we might choose and rights are not the simple equivalent of interest and desires. Yes, we have, all of us, natural and God-given rights. But that can hardly mean that nature and God gave no content and set no limits to those rights. These rights are not boundless, nor are their enjoyment and expansion the sum total of what defines a just society. To be sure, securing the “Blessings of Liberty” is the culminating phrase of the Constitution’s preamble. But even there it is admixed with all the other great goals of decent democratic life—justice, national defense, domestic tranquility, unity, and the hope of securing the common good. Are these ideas in tension with one another? Yes, of course they are. Yet we are bound as a nation to cultivate and secure all of them, together.

In the end, it is the task of a constitutional democracy like ours to show that liberty need not be equivalent to licentiousness, that rights can still have some connection to doing what is right, that freedom is not the enemy of forms and convention or the foe of traditional morality. But if we cannot show the world a strong and manly liberty—if all we know is the soft and indulgent liberty of interest and desire—then we should not be surprised when large parts of the world find our version of liberty no longer lovely, and see democratic freedom and equality as the enemies of order, dignity, propriety, faith, and morality.

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