Right & Wrong
The Right's Myth of American Exceptionalism Meets the Big Bush Lie at Abu Ghraib
In retrospect, it was an exercise in nomenclature fraught with signifying power. It is the beginning of an explanation for what happened at Abu Ghraib: the abuse, the humiliation, the torture. Those who named Camp Ganci intended to explicitly connect the attacks of 9/11 with the American occupation of Iraq. They drew an umbilical linkage, drawing sustenance from the hurt they felt over 9/11 to steel themselves for the hurt they would inflict as part of the occupation.
You hit us on 9/11, they were saying. That's why we're here--this is the payback. We suffered--now it's your turn. It was a statement of first principles that opens a window into the psychology of our young men and women, and more importantly the psychology of their leadership. It calls into question the Bush administration's public justification for the war, which is relentlessly touted as a paternalistic civilizing mission (ex post facto, after the WMD justification collapsed, but let's not quibble). They sold it that way, but they embedded--and not too deeply--in their rhetoric, in their swagger and tone, that it was also about revenge.
Of course, our Iraqi captives weren't the ones that hit us on 9/11. To insinuate anything else, to insinuate especially that Iraq is a central battle in the war on terror, that it is morally justifiable as a response to 9/11, is intellectually dishonest. The only thing more depressing than watching Colin Powell stand before the UN and squander his worldwide reputation for honesty and fair-dealing by hyping a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda (though even hyped, the evidence seemed ridiculously thin) was watching the saucer-eyed credulity with which his allegations were received by the arbiters of opinion in the mainstream press.
It was the Big Lie of the run-up to the war. On WMD the Bushies turned out to be spectacularly wrong, they hyped dubious claims, ignored caveats and turned ambiguity into certitude, but at least they had a (semi-)rational basis to argue that Saddam was a threat (except on nuclear--that was an obvious crock). They had Clintonian and European agreement that Saddam had WMD. On the link to al Qaeda, on Saddam's involvement in 9/11, however, they had no such cover.
Still, most Americans believed, in part because they were told it was true, in part because they wanted to believe it. George Bush desperately wanted to believe in a connection. He demanded that Richard Clarke find it (or make it up). Donald Rumsfeld was sure it existed. By September 12, 2001, he was calling for an attack on Iraq.
Even as late as September 2003, when George Bush finally admitted that "we have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks," 69 percent of Americans believed Saddam was involved. Dick Cheney, Bob Woodward's "steamrolling force" pushing the invasion, continues to play on this misconception. Last December Cheney again touted a link between al Qaeda and Iraq, blithely deploying discredited evidence--Mohammed Atta meeting in Prague with Iraqi intelligence, a claim dismissed by the CIA--to make the connection.
But it took more than a single lie and a thinly veiled call for revenge to create the indulgent atmosphere that allowed the abuses of Abu Ghraib to take place. The American right has spent years promoting a mythic, moralized vision of American exceptionalism, and they redoubled their efforts after 9/11. The idea, as they propound it, is that we are unique not just because we have a better social and political system, but that the existence of that system proves our moral superiority with respect to the rest of the world. Right-wing intellectuals are Hobbesians when they talk about the inferiority of foreign, particularly non-Western, lands--the wretches in such places are doomed to live lives that are nasty, brutish, and short unless we civilize them--but they are gushing romantics when they talk about America (excepting, of course, those parts in the grip of the amoral nightmare of secular liberalism).
The day after his "axis of evil" speech in January 2002, President Bush spoke in Daytona Beach, Florida. He made his now familiar statements about America's "mission" in the world, to promote "freedom and civilization and universal values." Then he went further. "We've got a great opportunity," he said. "As a result of evil, there's some amazing things taking place in America. People have begun to challenge the culture of the past that said, 'If it feels good, do it.' This great nation has a chance to help change the culture." The Economist, commenting on Bush's rhetoric, hit the nail squarely on the head: "On this view, America is not exceptional because it is powerful; America is powerful because it is exceptional.... The Bush administration displays 'exceptionalist' characteristics to an unusual extent. It is more openly religious than any of its predecessors."
We know Bush frames the world as a series of binary oppositions: good versus evil, with us or against us. God, he believes, is on our side. Because we are so inherently good, there is no need for our power to be constrained. International law, the Geneva Conventions, these are things necessary for other countries, but they only limit our ability to spread the benefits of our morality to others. On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether Americans held as "enemy combatants" have legal rights. The justices asked what legal remedy such people might have if our government tortured them. The government contended that they have no remedy, but our government would not use torture.
The truth, however, is that we are not morally exceptional. Our American-ness does not inoculate us against the dark forces of the human psyche. Stanley Milgram famously conducted a series of experiments in 1961-62 that found that 65 percent of Americans will torture if told by an authority figure that it is the right thing to do. Hannah Arendt found that Adolf Eichmann, architect of the system of Nazi death camps, was not a monster but an ordinary schmuck who imbibed the nefarious ideas of those he considered his betters. And yet, confronted with the horror of Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld can only sputter that it was "un-American."
It is because of this moralized vision of American virtue that the pictures coming out of our own torture chambers have struck the right so hard. A newfound sense of doubt is permeating right-wing intellectual circles as they confront the demon they have unleashed. David Brooks now calls for America to make a Christ-like geo-political sacrifice to purge the stain of our sin. We must allow ourselves to be defeated so our flock--the lumpen mass of good Iraqis--can win.
George Will, who seems to have been shocked into a reasonable facsimile of sanity by the horrors of Abu Ghraib, is now talking about the moral dangers of empire: "Pornography is, almost inevitably, part of what empire looks like... empire is always about domination."
The Bush administration bears the blame for what happened at Abu Ghraib. Guilt in this case is not so much a question of going up the chain of command as of going down a chain of hubristic ideas linked to self-serving lies. The sort of overweening arrogance displayed by the American torturers at Abu Ghraib is something they learned from their betters. As an immigrant from the Third World, I know why "they" hate us. They know we think we are better than them, and they know we are wrong.