First thoughts on Abu Ghraib

Courts-martial are a good start, but there are systematic failures standing behind the human depravity here. If prisoners are held incommunicado, then someone outside the prison structure has to visit frequently to see that they’re not mistreated.
And if we can’t try contract employees by court-martial or by our own domestic law, then why not throw them to the Iraqis for trial and punishment?

1. NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

2. Yes, I’m glad to be the citizen of a country where there’s not only a free press to report such things (kudos, once again, to Sy Hersh) but a military structure that investigates and documents them (more kudos to Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who wrote the report on which Hersh’s account is based), and includes individuals with the courage to make a fuss when they see wrongdoing (greatest kudos of all to Spec. Joseph M. Darby, who blew the whistle).

3. So far, I’ve seen no a word of denial or alibi from anyone who supports the war. Similarly, there’s been little or no crowing and point-scoring from the anti-war side. Everyone feels really, really sick about this. That’s a real sign of moral health.

4. Responsibility for this goes way up the chain, and not merely in a formal sense. When you decide to keep people in jail without access to lawyers and without visits by the Red Cross, bad things are going to happen: not always this bad, but bad enough.

Whoever signed the orders denying visits by counsel and by the IIRC should therefore have immediately issued another set of orders, ensuring that Arabic-speaking officers from units not involved with either running the prison or interrogating the prisoners would visit regularly and have the capacity to talk to the prisoners out of earshot of their interrogators or guards. If this isn’t SOP, then it needs to be made SOP now, and forever. Unsupervised incarceration is absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

5. On a much more elementary level, sending reserve MPs to do prison-guard duty without any training about the laws regarding the treatment of prisoners is just asking for trouble.

6. Once we give ourselves permission to use sleep deprivation and other means of “aggressive interrogation,” the risk of this sort of stuff goes way up. (More on that idea here.)

7. Radley Balko was surprised when people expressed disgust at, rather than mere disagreement with, his endorsement of torture. This should help explain why. Torture is a taboo, for good reasons. Maintaining that taboo has social value. Weakening it has real-world consequences.

8. If it’s true that the brass is trying to stick a bunch of reservists with all of the blame, that’s a disgrace. Let’s hear more about the role of military intelligence units and the CIA.

9. The fact that, so far, the highest-ranking man facing a courts-martial is an E-6 (staff sergeant)tells its own story.

10. The Army report backs up the assertions by one of the accused soldiers reports that civilian contractors, as well as military intelligence officers, encouraged him and his colleages to mistreat the prisoners. This raises rather urgently the question of how contract personnel can be held accountable. One of the contractors reportedly not only encouraged torture but lied to investigators. According to Hersh, Maj. Gen. Taguba recommended that he “be fired from his Army job, reprimanded, and denied his security clearances.”

Hey, is that tough, or what? In the real world, someone who directs others to commit aggravated sexual batteries and then lies about it to the cops is likely to get a free course in rock-busting. I doubt the military system treats such matters any more gently. So why should this guy get a break just because he was in civvies? The Guardian quotes a Central Command spokeswoman as saying that one contract employee was accused of mistreating a prisoner [other sources specified that he been accused of raping a teenaged Iraqi boy] but couldn’t be tried for lack of military jurisdiction. (Phil Carter has thoughts on this question.)

Query: Why not turn the guy over to the Iraqis for trial and punishment? Presumably the existing Iraqi criminal code has something to say about rape.

11. Milgram was right. Given the appropriate orders, a large proportion of virtually any population will do utterly appalling things.

Any training process involving people who will be put in positions where they might think it part of their job to inflict pain or harm on other people — police and prison guards in particular — ought to include a Milgram-style simulation, and a long, careful debriefing about it.

12. NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

Footnote The lawyer for Sgt. Frederick, the senior non-com charged in both rank and age, was a defense attorney for some of the My Lai accused. Any bets who handed Hersh the Taguba report?

Update More thoughts on taboos from Robert Waldman. Subtle, and worth a close reading.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “First thoughts on Abu Ghraib”

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