When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and proceeded to carry out their savagery, many in the outside world asked how this could have happened in the land of Goethe and Beethoven. Would the people of other societies as readily accept tyranny? Sinclair Lewis, in 1935, imagined Americans turning to dictatorship under the pressures of economic distress in the Depression. He called his novel, ironically, It Can't Happen Here.
Hannah Arendt and many others have stripped us, since then, of confidence that people will resist evil in times of fear. When Serbs and Rwandan Hutus were told that they were threatened, they slaughtered their neighbors. Lately Philip Roth was plausible enough when he imagined anti-Semitism surging after an isolationist America elected Charles Lindbergh as President in 1940.
But it still comes as a shock to discover that American leaders will open the way for the torture of prisoners, that lawyers will invent justifications for it, that the President of the United States will strenuously resist legislation prohibiting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners–and that much of the American public will be indifferent to what is being done in its name.
The pictures from Abu Ghraib, first shown to the public on April 28, 2004, evoked a powerful reaction. Americans were outraged when they saw grinning US soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners. But it was seeing the mistreatment that produced the outrage, or so we must now conclude. Since then the Bush Administration and its lawyers have prevented the release of any more photographs or videotapes. And the public has not reacted similarly to the disclosure, without pictures, of worse actions, including murder.
The American Civil Liberties Union released documents on forty-four deaths of prisoners in US custody, twenty-one of them officially classified as homicides. For example, an Iraqi prisoner died while being interrogated in 2004. He had been deprived of sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures, doused with cold water and kept hooded. The official report said hypothermia may have contributed to his death.
Writing recently in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer described the killing of an Iraqi prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, in Abu Ghraib in 2003. His head was covered with a plastic bag, and he was shackled in a position that led to his asphyxiation. The death was classified as a homicide. But so far no charges have been brought by the Justice Department against the man who had custody of the prisoner, a CIA officer named Mark Swanner.
In addition to murder and torture, humiliation and indignity have been widely used as aids to interrogation. Time quoted at length earlier this year from the official log of how one prisoner in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was interrogated. Over a period of weeks he was questioned for as long as twenty hours at a stretch, forbidden to urinate until finally he "went" on himself, made to bark like a dog. His treatment was an exercise in humiliation. Other reports have described prisoners chained hand and foot to the floor for twenty-four hours, until they urinated and defecated on themselves.
Several provisions of law forbid not only torture but humiliation of prisoners. The Geneva Conventions prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating or degrading treatment" of war captives. The UN Convention Against Torture condemns "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment"–and Congress enforced the provisions of the convention in a criminal statute. The Uniform Code of Military Justice makes cruelty, oppression or "maltreatment" of prisoners by US forces a crime.