HBO's documentary "The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," aired a few days ago, is yet another attempt to use the scandal to portray the Bush administration as soft on torture. Conservatives, meanwhile, continue to minimize the significance of what happened there. Some characterize Abu Ghraib as no big deal, what James Schlesinger termed “Animal House on the night shift.” Others defende Abu Ghraib as a way to get valuable information about potential terrorist attacks. Rush Limbaugh claimed that “maybe the people who ordered this are pretty smart” because, as an interrogation technique, “it sounds pretty effective to me.”
Throughout the Muslim world, Abu Ghraib was viewed very differently. To see why, we need to take a closer look at the scandal. Fortunately we have a detailed picture of what happened, both from the military’s 500-page report and from the trials of Private Lynndie England and Private Charles Graner, the two main figures involved. After marrying at age 19 “on a whim,” as she put it, England left her husband and enlisted in the military. There she met Graner, who was fresh from a divorce in which his wife had taken out three protective orders against him.
Shortly before they went to Iraq, England and Graner partied together with another soldier friend in Virginia Beach. “They drank heavily,” the New York Times reports, and when the other soldier passed out, “Private Graner and Private England took turns taking photographs of each other exposing themselves over his head.” In Iraq, the two began an affair which they continued even though both were warned that their sexual trysts on the night shift violated military rules.
Soon Graner and England began to make videos of their sex acts. They circulated the videos among their friends, and even mailed some to friends back in America. In October 2004, Graner persuaded several other soldiers to join him in staging and photographing prisoners. They made Muslim men strip naked and simulate various sex acts for the camera. They ordered male captives to put on female underwear, sometimes on their heads. They compelled prisoners to masturbate while they watched. At one point England said of a detainee, “Look, he’s getting hard.”
Graner said he was the one who took the infamous photograph of England holding a leash around the neck of a crawling prisoner. “Look what I made Lynndie do,” Graner boasted in an email with the photo attachment that he sent to someone he knew. Graner said the pictures he took of inmates masturbating were a “birthday gift” to England. Graner made another unexpected present to England: he made her pregnant.
England discovered the pregnancy two days after she broke up with Graner. The reason for the breakup was that Graner was having an affair with another woman, Specialist Megan Ambuhl. During their courtship Ambuhl emailed Graner an article headlined, “Study Finds Frequent Sex Raises Cancer Risk.” She commented, “We could have died last night.”
The army sent England home on account of her pregnancy, and by the time the baby was born she was no longer speaking to Graner. Graner proposed marriage to Ambuhl during his court martial, and England found this out from her lawyers. Graner got 10 years in prison, England three years. The other soldiers received lesser sentences. Paul Arthur, the military investigator who was the first to question England, quoted her giving a simple motive for her actions. “It was just for fun.” Arthur added, “They didn’t think it was that serious. They didn’t think it was a big deal. They were joking around.”
Now we are in a better position to understand the Muslim reaction to Abu Ghraib. Most Muslims did not view it as a torture story at all. Muslims were not outraged at the interrogation techniques used by the American military, which are quite mild by Arab standards. Moreover, many Muslims realized that the most of the torture scenes in the photographs—the hooded man with his arms outstretched, the prisoner with wires attached to his limbs—were staged. This was simulated torture, not real torture.
The main focus of Islamic disgust was what Muslims perceived as extreme sexual perversion. For many traditional Muslims, Abu Ghraib demonstrated the casualness with which married Americans have affairs, walk out on their spouses, and produce children without bothering to take responsibility for the care of their offspring. In the Muslim view, this perversion is characteristic of American society.
Moreover, many Muslims viewed the degradation of Abu Ghraib as a metaphor for how little Americans care for other people’s sacred values, and for the kind of humiliation that America seeks to impose on the Muslim world. Some Muslims argued that such degradation was worse than execution because death only strips a man of his life, not of his honor.
In one crucial respect, however, the Muslim critics were wrong. Contrary to their assertions, Abu Ghraib did not reflect the shared values of America, it reflected the sexual immodesty of liberal America. Lynndie England and Charles Graner were two wretched individuals from Red America who were trying to act out the fantasies of Blue America. Casting aside all traditional notions of decency, propriety and morality, they simply lived by the code of self-fulfillment. If it feels good, it must be right. This was bohemianism, West Virginia-style.
At some level, the cultural left recognized this, which is why most of its comments about Abu Ghraib assiduously avoided the issue of sexual deviancy. The left’s embarrassment on this matter seems to have drawn on class prejudice. For some liberals, soldiers like Graner and England were poor white trash getting into trouble again. Of course if Graner and England were professors at an elite liberal arts college, their videotaped orgies might easily have become the envy of academia. If they were artists staging these pictures in a loft in Soho they could have been hailed as pioneers and encouraged by leftist admirers to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
But being low-life Appalachians, Graner and England inspired none of these elevated thoughts. Instead, liberals moved opportunistically to attack the military and discredit its prisoner interrogation policies—even though these polices had nothing to do with what actually happened.
To his credit, President Bush made no attempt to defend Abu Ghraib, firmly asserting that it didn’t represent America. What he should have said is that it didn’t represent the values of conservative America. In reality Abu Ghraib did reflect the values of a debauched liberalism run amok. These values are ruining America’s image in the traditional world. Many ordinary Muslims were scandalized to see how some Americans behave, and how other Americans who should know better try to cover these disgraceful things up. In minimizing Abu Ghraib, some conservatives became cheap apologists for liberal debauchery.