Behind Abu Ghraib, an Even Darker Question


It was Dostoyevsky who said you can judge a society by its prisons. It is how Saddam was judged, and it is sadly now how many around the world will judge the U.S. But the accounts of physical abuse, sexual humiliation, and mental torture that Iraqi prisoners endured at the hands of their American captors at Abu Ghraib conceal an even darker question, one that few Americans seem willing to confront. That is the question of what may be called “moral extraterritoriality.”

Just as offshore banking allows wealthy citizens and corporations to escape U.S. taxes, so too much of the nation has long dodged moral liability for the country’s actions abroad by embracing a fiction that what America does overseas may be held to a lesser standard, if any standard at all. If the Abu Ghraib scandal has anything to teach us, it is that morality, like the economy, is now global. No longer can we so easily escape the consequences of our crimes and skullduggery abroad.

What is painfully clear is that Abu Ghraib prison is not an isolated case. Other accounts of degradation and abuse are surfacing from those released from Guantánamo and Afghanistan. One cannot help but ask why the nation’s outrage could only be triggered by the release of photographs, why it took such an assault on the eyes to shake the nation out of its moral stupor.

Is Abu Ghraib really news? One is reminded of the film Casablanca and the feigned shock at the discovery of gambling in Rick’s Café. Month after month stories have seeped out about “torture lite,” about secret prisons and internment facilities beyond the ken of anyone. A reporter returning from Guantánamo complained that his handler even accompanied him to the latrine. Bivouacked on a peninsula surrounded by barbed wire, a minefield, and the sea, he was allowed to see nothing. Something was being hidden. And where was—and is—American outrage over so-called “renditions,” in which the U.S. places individuals in the hands of the secret police of nations notorious for torture and human rights abuses, outliers like Pakistan, Syria, and Egypt? Is it less offensive when U.S. intelligence operatives supply the questions while others apply their ancient methods to secure the answers? Distance does not immunize us when the devil does our bidding.

That is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal. It is as if a criminal suggested that it was not he who was responsible but rather the hand and digits at the far end of his arm, as if the intervening two feet afforded some moral disconnect. Geography and distance have nothing to do with moral accountability, only with the ease with which criminal acts may be kept from sight and quarantined from conscience. It is moral subterfuge to sigh that such things merely happened on our watch—the misdemeanor of inattention—as opposed to happening while we watched.

To the surviving families of 16 civilians killed in an Afghanistan raid, the CIA later passed out $1,000 checks. In Belgrade, NATO bombed the Chinese embassy, believing it was a Yugoslav supply-and-procurement center; the U.S. paid off the families of those killed in the deadly blunder. And now in Iraq, checks may soon be cut for those who endured the unspeakable. Such payments salve not their wounds but ours.

Where do such notions of moral extraterritoriality begin? One place is the leafy preserve in Virginia affectionately known as “the Farm.” There, the CIA teaches courses in “picks-and-locks” (how to break and enter), “black bag jobs” (burglaries, break-ins), “flaps and seals” (how to read others’ mail without detection), and a host of other skills that violate and subvert the laws of nations and would be felonies at home.

In our ham-handed crusade against terrorism, we have unwittingly abetted the enemy. In his hands the ultimate WMD is the World’s Moral Decline—not a thing to which we as a nation should contribute. Evil—theirs and ours—replicates itself and spreads, threatening our own shores as well.

At the hearings of the 9-11 Commission, CIA director George Tenet was naively asked why a domestic intelligence apparatus should not be placed within the CIA. He seemed amused as he suggested that the agency’s ways were not quite suited for such work at home. When the U.S. trains Americans to commit felonies abroad, to subject prisoners to sensory and sleep deprivation and water-boarding (in which a person is strapped to a board and pushed underwater to the point of almost drowning), and God knows what else (most of the Abu Ghraib photographs were deemed too repulsive and incendiary to release), we come to understand Tenet’s reluctance to open an American franchise. And yet the evil finds its ways home. It insinuates itself into our society, desensitizes us to injustices at home, undermines our faith in ourselves and each other, and ultimately renders us more vulnerable to attack by creating endless new enemies.

There is a long and sordid story behind Abu Ghraib (ours, not Saddam’s), one that has its roots in U.S. intelligence and the Cold War, another frenzied crusade against another devil: Communism. How many Abu Ghraibs did the U.S. help found by training tens of thousands of Central American strongmen, colonels, and contractors at the School of the Americas, where information extraction was elevated to a deadly art form?

The real sin of Abu Ghraib is that we continue to deny its context. If the U.S. is indeed in a war with terrorists, if it is fighting for its very existence, then perhaps a valid argument can be made that the gloves must now come off, that the boundaries of our humanity must be redrawn. But that would require a full and open national debate, beginning first within ourselves, then carried on between neighbors, rising to communities, and finding ultimate expression in Congress and the ballot box. But even now we still seem to have no stomach for that wider discussion. Besides, should moral extraterritoriality fail us, as it did at Abu Ghraib, we can always pin the blame on others. That’s what privates are for.

Ted Gup is the author of The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, and is a Guggenheim Fellow on leave from Case Western Reserve University, where he is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism.