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The Language of Abuse

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, May 13 , 2004

In a way, the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison speak for themselves. But it's hard to assign a moral signficance to the acts until we've attached a name to them.

The French, German, and Italian papers have all been describing the affair under the running head "Torture in Iraq."And that's the word that's being used by British papers on both the left and the right. The Red Cross report that was disclosed on Monday hedged that description only slightly when it described the treatment of  detainees as "tantamount to torture."

"Torture" has appeared in the American press, too -- when The New Yorker ran a photo of a naked prisoner being threatened by dogs, it captioned it, "torture of Iraqi prisoners." And a few papers have described the events as "atrocities" (for some reason a lot more dramatic than calling them "atrocious").

But most of the American press and political leadership has been more circumspect. When Secretary Rumsfeld was asked about the charges of torture at his news briefing, he said,  "what has been charged so far is abuse, which is different from torture.I'm not going to address the 'torture' word." And the majority of American newspapers and news broadcasts have been sticking with generic terms like "abuse" and "mistreatment."

In fact, some people on the right have balked even at those words. In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last Sunday, Midge Decter referred to the treatment of detainees as a "nasty hazing." And Rush Limbaugh described it as "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation." "I'm talking about people having a good time," he said. "You ever heard of emotional release? You of heard of need to blow some steam off?"

Here in San Francisco, I heard a pair of shock jocks the other day describing the prison as "Abu Grab-Ass" and talking about the treatment in a way that made it sound like "Animal House III -- Bluto Bonks Baghdad."   

Strictly speaking, what took place in the prison probably does fit the Geneva Convention's definition of torture, which  is pretty broad. It covers the infliction of physical or mental pain or suffering "for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind..."

But people's choice of words here doesn't have a lot to do with what President Bush likes to call "legalisms." The American media have other reasons for describing the events differently from the Europeans. They may want to extenuate the abuses, or at least avoid the criticisms they might get if they used what Rumsfeld calls "the torture word." But it's also because "torture" and "torturer" don't seem quite the right words for the scenes in those photos.

Torture may be familiar in the modern world, but it's also remote -- we only see up it close in the movies. "Torture" suggests an aestheticized ritual -- it doesn't seem odd that the torture scenes in "Battle of Algiers" should have a Bach chorale in the background.

And in the movies, the torturer's cruelty is ironically counterpoised by a cosmopolitan and often effete manner -- Laurence Olivier in "Marathon Man," Gert Frobe in "Goldfinger," or the Mohammed Khan character in "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" telling Gary Cooper "We have ways of making men talk." Or you think of Vincent Price in almost anything -- astringent, urbane,  and talking like someone who had lived a lot of his life abroad. 

There are no middle-class middle-American torturers in our gallery, much less torturers with the pudding countenances of those GI's who were working at McDonald's a year ago. And the humiliations they were inflicting didn't seem to have much in common with the rituals of pain and submission that "torture" brings to mind.  The GI's went down another road, even if it fell off just as sharply.

That's what creates the sense of incongruity we feel when we see those photos, I think. Those may have been far from Delta House high jinks, but you wouldn't know it from the clowning poses the GIs were striking.

In an odd way, in fact, Decter and Limbaugh may have gotten it right despite themselves. Not that there's any defense for describing this as hazing, which is a grotesquely dishonest name for what went on. Leaving aside the severity of the abuses, the prisoners weren't in a position to resign from the club, nor were they about to be given membership pins when pledge week was over. You may as well say that the LA police were hazing Rodney King.

But if "hazing" was supposed to palliate the offenses, it also makes them seem more familiar. It's the sort of thing that any adolescent with a normal libido might be capable of -- and worse, if the circumstances permit. As the Stanford psychologist  Phil Zimbardo showed in a famous experiment more than 30 years ago, it doesn't take a lot to tranform a group of healthy, intelligent male college students into sadistic prison guards, provided someone in authority gives them the nod.

We don't really have a good word for this sort of thing. Not that it isn't right to call it abuse or mistreatment. But those are vague words that blur the moral distinctions we're trying to capture. And we may yet find out that the behavior extended to the sorts of fingernail-pulling barbarities that not even Rumsfeld would have any qualms about describing as torture.

But while words like "torture" and "atrocity" are well-suited to convey the alien inhumanity of the decapitation video that surfaced this week, they don't really help us to grasp the disturbing familiarity of the faces in the pictures from Abu Ghraib -- the kind of brutality that isn't inhuman so much as all too.

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.