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"Setting the Conditions" for Abu Ghraib: The Prison Nation Abroad

From: American Quarterly
Volume 57, Number 3, September 2005
pp. 973-997 | 10.1353/aq.2005.0039

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American Quarterly 57.3 (2005) 973-997

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"Setting the Conditions" for Abu Ghraib:

The Prison Nation Abroad

I am referring to a state of doubleness of social being in which one moves in bursts between somehow accepting the situation as normal, only to be thrown into a panic or shocked into disorientation by an event, a rumor, a sight, something said, or not said—something that even while it requires the normal in order to make its impact, destroys it. You find this with the terrible poverty in a Third World society and now in the centers of U.S. cities too, such as Manhattan; people like you and me close their eyes to it, in a manner of speaking, but suddenly an unanticipated event occurs, perhaps a dramatic or poignant or ugly one, and the normality of the abnormal is shown for what it is. Then it passes away, terror as usual, in a staggering of position that lends itself to survival as well as despair and macabre humor.
Michael Taussig, The Nervous System1

Terror as Usual

At Abu Ghraib, the normality of the abnormal was placed on spectacu-lar display when photographs of American GIs proudly humiliating and torturing Iraqi detainees suddenly and surprisingly achieved worldwide media coverage.2 The shock value of the Abu Ghraib photos lies not in their images of torture during wartime or in prison but in the apparent patriotic delight of the torturers, in America "out of place." In them, we are presented with a seemingly unsustainable contradiction: an image of liberators engaged in torture, of a democracy acting sadistically in a totalitarian setting. We are confronted with America decentered publicly and unavoidably, its "imagined community" disrupted by way of a hyper-aggressive patriotism.

Simultaneously, we are not surprised at all. Mark Danner identifies the soldiers' actions at Abu Ghraib as "a logical extension of treatment they have seen every day under a military occupation that began harshly and has grown, under the stress of the insurgency, more brutal."3 Slavoj Žižek insists that "in the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners, what we get is, precisely, an insight into 'American values,'" a "flipside" to public morality, premised in the obscene, where soldiers perceive torture and humiliation as acceptable.4 In [End Page 973] other contexts, some neoconservatives express outrage at the outrage itself: war is war after all and prisons house "dangerous" people.5

As the story of Abu Ghraib unfolds, the limits of such conflicting discourses are being constructed primarily by and through law. This legal contest centers in many ways upon how various kinds of law will come to view events at the Baghdad prison while under American occupation and which vision of law will be privileged. As is clear from the first wave of legal hearings and courts-martial, the stakes of that contest, much like the conditions of Abu Ghraib, are centered in a vocabulary of punishment, including its correlates: interrogation, accountability, and blame. Culpability is and will be based ultimately upon a legal judgment as to Abu Ghraib's uniqueness or its typicality, its abnormalcy or its normalcy, when, in reality, it is the combined qualities of normal abnormalcy that make Abu Ghraib possible at all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the penal contexts at home, which mirror the kinds of technologies, techniques, and discourses found at Abu Ghraib.

As a site of unseemly conjunctures between various kinds of competing law, Abu Ghraib is an unusually complex instance of American imprisonment. Its gates mark encounters with United States, Islamic, military, criminal, and international human rights law. Its walls mark not simply the contours of sovereignty and the boundaries of the nation/state but, more significantly, their violation as an immense superpower engages in a preemptive strike, invasion, occupation, and torture. Within this configuration of power, transnational exportations of punishment materialize in a variety of manifestations: (1) in the sociopolitical contexts that define the lives of the primary actors caught up in the prison/military-industrial complex and its increasingly global economies...