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"The Monster in the Mirror"

May 6, 2004

Commentary by
Lauren Weinstein


We've all seen the photos. One of them, the hooded Iraqi prisoner balancing on a box, wired arms outstretched like a nightmarish echo of Christ seemingly about to undergo electrocution, may well become the enduring image of the Iraq war, replacing the staged shots of Saddam's falling statue from the heady days of invasion. Many of the other photos are sufficiently graphic that they'd probably be prohibited from public view by various pending attempts at Internet censorship legislation.

But the last thing we should want (contrary to views expressed by some) is to suppress such images, disturbing as they are. It is becoming clear that only the publication of those photos moved these abuses onto the center stage both publicly and politically. Without those images, the apparent efforts to keep the story "under the radar" might well have succeeded. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

President Bush and his damage control team, with the ever-glib Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld leading the pack, are doing their utmost to assure the world that this case is a mere aberration, a one-time exception -- "Not the America I know," says Bush.

Unfortunately, we know that's not really true. For persons in positions of relative weakness in our society, to varying degrees of severity, the same sorts of abuses -- sexual humiliation, sodomy, torture, and even crimes such as murder under cover of authority -- while not everyday experiences for most of us, are nowhere near as uncommon as we'd like to believe.

Children are victimized by sadistic bullies while coaches and other authority figures look the other way. Hazing victims are injured or killed. Endemic abuses permeate the U.S. prison system. Minorities and others are victimized by out-of-control law enforcement operatives. We see the articles, we read the reports, we skim the studies. None of this is anything new, and somehow the status quo manages to largely continue. Reaction to the events of 9/11 is used by some as today's excuse, but in reality the mindsets that nurture such behaviors long predate that fateful day.

The common thread in all such atrocities is a disparity of power. Whether dealing with children, college students, common criminals, or suspected terrorists, we as a society show a distinct propensity to dehumanize, to treat the objects of our scorn as mere animals, and then to subject them to abuses that we'd never permit for the family pets.

None of this is the exclusive domain of any one country. Such behaviors seem to be an ingrained part of our psyche as humans, as millennia of wars attest. But to acknowledge this is not to accept it. We may still choose to disown our bloody history, to move at least one step up away from brutality in our treatment of others.

Especially in times of war, this requires true leadership, not excuses and cronyism. It requires intelligence, not dogmatism. And perhaps above all, it requires a willingness to take responsibility when events or subordinates go awry.

Without these attributes on the part of our leaders, we can hope for little more than endless repeats of history, with the torture chambers never wanting for new customers.

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Lauren Weinstein

For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren

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