The Theater of Cruelty

The Theater of Cruelty

The detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib were both a continuation and a divergence from historical prison practices.


When the story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib broke, many were surprised that the American military had chosen to take over a prison complex at a time when libraries, museums, hospitals and weapons depots were unguarded. But this focus on incarceration has a long pedigree in the history of European–and specifically English–military expansion. It goes back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when, as now, there was an enormous growth in domestic prison populations; in Britain at that time, as in America today, many soldiers and sailors lived in the shadow of new penal institutions. For many there was little difference between jail and military service. “No man will be a sailor,” said Dr. Johnson, “who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail.” The growing number of prisoners was vital to the process of expansion, since it provided both a pool of recruits for military service and a population that could be used to settle overseas colonies.

In India too, the British conquests of the eighteenth century led to a rapid growth in the prison system. By the latter half of the century the British were transporting Indian prisoners to a chain of penal colonies on islands across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean: Penang, Ramree Island near Burma, the Andaman Islands, Mauritius and Bencoolen off the coast of Sumatra. These were the ancestors of Guantánamo Bay.

Not the least of the many continuities between Abu Ghraib and British prisons in India lies in their obsessive fascination with observing and marking prisoners’ bodies–stripping prisoners naked, as it were, in order to remake them. Indeed, some of the Abu Ghraib images are eerily reminiscent of photographs taken by British prison officials in Asia in the late nineteenth century. In these too, the prisoners are naked, men and women, and they stand with an arm outstretched and their genitals facing the camera; although their clothes have been removed, many wear fetters and chains. The difference is that these pictures were taken for officially sanctioned projects of documentation, and the jailors were absent from the frames.

In early nineteenth century India, convicts destined for transportation were often branded with tattoos. Apart from identifying the prisoners, these marks also served the purpose of humiliation. In precolonial India, where, as in North Africa and parts of the Arab world, tattoos were an adornment more for women than men, marking the bodies of prisoners was intended as a symbolic emasculation, not just of the convicts but of the society that produced them. Although it is unlikely the prison guards at Abu Ghraib were aware of this precedent, a similar intent was clearly at work in their actions.

Another continuity lies in the marriage of incarceration and cultural theory. The methods employed in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay are said to have been informed by the ideas of anthropologists like Raphael Patai, who, in his notorious 1973 work The Arab Mind, wrote at length about Arab conceptions of sexuality, honor and masculinity. British prison officials in India were also careful to target what they thought were deep-rooted fears and taboos. They believed, for instance, that Indians dreaded sea voyages more than death itself: This was, in their eyes, one of the great advantages of island prisons.

One distinctive feature of Indian jails was that the convicts would often find refuge and consolation in informal networks of family and village, caste and community. The Abu Ghraib pictures suggest a similar dynamic. In some of them the prisoners seem almost to be reaching out to one another, as if in support. It is easy to imagine that this was a source of intense annoyance for guards who had graduated from the American prison system. In their previous jobs they would not have had to play a major role in brutalizing prisoners: The convicts would have done the job for them. In Abu Ghraib they found themselves dealing with a prison population that did not know the drill. This perhaps is why some of the guards wear expressions of exasperation in the Abu Ghraib pictures: It is as if they are irritated at having to teach these convicts something they should already have known. Look, say their faces, this is how it’s done.

Despite all the pedigrees and continuities, there is also something radically new about the Abu Ghraib pictures. This novelty does not lie in the acts depicted (for we can be sure that far worse things have happened in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein): It lies, rather, in the pictures’ intent. Many commentators have argued that what is depicted in the pictures is not torture but abuse. They are, I think, technically right. Torture implies the use of extreme means in order to achieve certain ends. It is clear from the Abu Ghraib pictures that the perpetrators of the abuse had no specific end in mind. It is as if they were making the prisoners act out an idea of torture, not as a means but as an end in itself. It is as if the jailors were saying to the prisoners: There is no particular purpose in doing this other than to teach you who you are and what your place is in relation to us.

The war in Iraq has often been described in the language of the classroom: It is said to be intended to provide lessons in democracy and to teach the ways of freedom and so on. The meaning of the photographs is also framed by this pedagogical context: It is as if they were made to illustrate, for the benefit of Third Worlders, the reality of the unspoken relationship between prisons and parliaments. This is where their horror lies: not just in the acts performed before the camera but in the fact that they are communicative acts, evidently intended to educate, to train. That is probably why the soldiers felt no hesitation in taking and distributing the pictures; they too were sure, no doubt, that the purity of their ends was a validation of the means they had chosen.

If there is any useful lesson to be drawn from this, it is that now, as ever, means cannot be separated from ends: They are the same thing. In the Clinton years there were many liberal interventionists who believed that the nobility of their ends somehow justified the use of any means at hand (unilateralism, the flouting of international law and so on). Today the tune has changed, and some liberal interventionists have begun to speak of the dangers of a foreign policy that is overly moralistic. This is to misplace the blame for everything that has gone wrong. Addressing the question of human betterment was never the problem: The problem began with the privileging of ends over means. It is because of this that the liberal interventionists have been so neatly tied into a knot by the neoconservatives: Having failed to address the question of the appropriate means, they have been unable to contest the appropriation of their ends. By way of contrast, this is also one of the reasons why such figures as Richard Falk and Noam Chomsky are so remarkable: because of their insistence on scrutinizing means as well as ends.

The anniversary of Abu Ghraib should serve as a reminder of what happens when the declared ends of a project are utterly incommensurate with the means: The means become the end, enacted over and over again.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy