Donald Rumsfeld assures us that the abuses at Abu Ghraib are "un-American."
Indeed they are, but the perpetrators of these acts were Americans. That is not an incidental fact. Soldiers always reflect their societies.
In the first weeks of World War I, the story goes, a young British officer in Belgium was reprimanded for not having put a guard at a certain point. His response reflected the genteel assumptions of the time: "Oh, the Germans wouldn't come that way, Sir, it's private property."
So it is that in Abu Ghraib and its aftermath we see some of the seamy undercurrents of America magnified in a horrifying fashion -- in particular, the celebration of cruelty, the ubiquity of pornography and a cult of victimhood. Any society, of course, will produce weak and malicious people, and prison abuses are nothing new. Andersonville, Ga., is still notorious for the conditions in the Confederate prison camp there. But the distinct echoes of Abu Ghraib in our culture are unmistakable.
Consider the iconic film of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." It includes a scene of the rape of a man imprisoned and kept as a sexual slave, which prompted laughs in theaters. The victim, "The Gimp," became a figure of fun. Tarantino's latest, the "Kill Bill" movies, present the same romance of power and violence, arbitrarily and stylishly wielded. Cruelty, Tarantino tells us, can be fun.
This is not to say that the filmmaker, or anyone besides those who committed and condoned the acts, is in any way responsible for Abu Ghraib. It's just that Tarantino -- and he's not the only one -- touches something within us that enjoys exalting the strong and humiliating the weak. And not just on movie screens. Large men forcibly sodomizing smaller men in U.S. prisons is widely made light of America.
So, it was shocking to see a large gloved man smiling in a picture with his arms crossed as he stood over a pile of naked Iraqi detainees, but there was something familiar about it too. The apotheosis of the strong. There was something familiar in the picture of Lynndie England, with a cigarette dangling from her lips, pointing her finger at the genitals of a naked detainee. We know what she's doing in that picture -- she's trying to seem cool. She thinks that cruelty is a game, that the strong engage in it casually.