Pursuing the Meaning of Abu Ghraib

By Joe Smith


"Now all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land, and we will help make that freedom permanent by assisting them to establish an equitable criminal justice system based on the rule of law and standards of basic human rights."

—Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the appointment of a team to restore Iraq’s criminal justice system last year.

The scandal over abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison facility that erupted at the end of April has dealt a fatal body blow to the US military adventure in Iraq. Coming in the wake of the rebellions that spread across Sunni and Shiite regions of Iraq, the prison scandal demonstrated what critics in the anti-war movement had long contended. This was no project of liberating the Iraqi nation from the clutches of Ba’athist tyranny, it is a war of recolonization.

The recolonization project has two components that are immediately familiar to any global justice activist. The first part of recolonization involves using military means to achieve the ends of neoliberal economic restructuring. Whereas in the past such goals were pursued through multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, the Bush administration has pursued these goals unilaterally (or more specifically through short-term makeshift alliances e.g. the coalition of the willing). A key part of this has involved appointing a small group of Iraqi collaborators to a Provisional Authority. This authority has served to rubber stamp the privitization of Iraqi state assets and to open the door to international investment.

This arm of the recolonization project has run into crisis as national resistance movements, appearing first among Iraqi Sunnis and later Iraqi Shiites, have chased away many private operators as well as humanitarian organizations.

The second arm of the recolonization project involves creating a disciplinary apparatus to deal with inevitable resistance to the US military adventure. First and foremost in this regard is the need to construct an Iraqi "Other" that can be defined and treated as powerless. For example, since Bush’s declaration of an end to major hostilities on May 1st 2003 the gathering resistance was routinely defined as either remnants of the Baathist regime or as foreign terrorists.

This allowed apologists for the US operation to see any expression of discontent to the US occupation project as illegitimate. As the defenders of the American interest would have it only a criminal or a terrorist could possibly find some reason to oppose in American intentions. When widespread rebellion broke out across the country in April of this year we suddenly heard terms like “silent majority.” The silent majority is a phantom population that supports the US occupation which not even pollsters have been able to locate.

What happened at Abu Ghraib is thus a classic example of the racist contempt for the colonized on the part of the colonizer. Via the suspension of the Geneva Conventions the occupying power had created an Other against which any act, no matter how loathsome, was deemed permissable.

This can be seen in the inhuman acts captured in photographs taken by soldiers and in the Taguba report. It is also apparent in the arbitrary nature of repression under the occupation. The Red Cross reported in February of this year that some military intelligence officers believe that 70 to 90 percent of the inmates detained in Iraq have been detained by mistake.

These findings have been re-confirmed in a more recent unpublished report by Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder and obtained by the NY Times. The Ryder report says that some Iraqis had been detained for periods of up to several months for doing nothing more than expressing “displeasure or ill will” toward US occupation forces.

As this piece goes to cyberpress it appears that the official response to this crisis will be two-fold. On the one hand there will be an attempt to interpret the scandal as an example of a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy criminal justice barrel. This is going to be difficult since the connections between Abu Ghraib prison and the other parts of the global prison apparatus being set up by the US in places as far afield as Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are many.

It is also going to be difficult because the scandal has cast a pall over American military operations as a whole. This uncomfortable fact brings us to the other response of the administration. Last week President Bush announced that Abu Ghraib facility would be bulldozed. The stated reason is that Abu Ghraib is suddenly an unacceptable reminder of the crimes of Saddam Hussein.

The subtext is that by destroying the facility, the US is somehow wiping clean the slate by showing some accountability. As if the “radical evil” of colonial occupations stemmed from the built environment and not from the relations between colonizer and colonized! However this bid is unlikely to play well either domestically or internationally. The unsettling truth is that Abu Ghraib has become the face of American empire. The destruction of the facility is meant to cure the dis-ease of a nation which cannot bear its own reflection in the mirror.

The global justice movement has and must continue to make opposition to wars of empire a centerpiece in it’s struggle for another possible world. It must do so by making connections between the neoliberal arm of the recolonization project and the arm that consists of establishing a narrowly disciplinary state presiding over a liberalized market economy. It must condemn imperialism in whatever guise it takes, be it the multilateralism of the Clinton era or the unilateralism of the Bush administration.

Global Justice and Anti-War activists must demand the prompt withdrawal of US forces and corporations from Iraq. We must demand accountability from the administration beginning with the resignation of prominent neoconservative figures in the administration. Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove, Feith and Wolfowitz must go. We must also press the demand for the impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney. We must demand that the architects of this war be tried for war crimes before the international community.

We must continue to be adamant that another world is possible.

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Against Provincialism

How Do You Pronounce "Abu Ghraib"?
Slate.com's Sam Schechner spoke to New York University's Ahmed Ferhadi about pronunciation and common misconceptions:

"The first word is easy: 'ah-BOO.' The trouble is the second word, which begins with a phlegmy, guttural 'gh' sound uncommon in American English—the sound is peculiar to the Arabic letter 'ghayn.' The 'r' is easy, but the "ai" is a bit confusing: The word doesn't share the diphthong vowel sound of "grave" or 'grape' as many newscasters seem to think; instead, the vowel is closer to that in 'ebb,' but is slightly more extended.

So the proper pronunciation sounds something like a French person using a rolling 'r' to render 'grehhb.'"

Click here to download an asf audio file of New York University's Ahmed Ferhadi pronouncing "Abu Ghraib."