'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Women of Abu Ghraib 

The next issue of The American Prospect will contain an article about the alleged rape of female Iraqi prisoners by their American captors. The article, "Unusual Suspects", written by Tara McKelvey, marks the first time that this story was dealt with head on in the mainstream US media -- rumors and one-sentence allusions to these sorts of abuses appeared in news articles throughout the spring of 2004, but until now there has not been an exposé like this one in the United States.

The meat of the article draws from McKelvey's interviews with several women who were detained at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Most of these women are plaintiffs in a pair of class-action lawsuits against the Titan Corporation and CACI International, two of the private companies to which the Pentagon farmed out its interrogation work. CACI, you might recall, was the company that sicced lawyers on the New Standard. Here's a representative excerpt from "Unusual Suspects":

When Selwa talks about Abu Ghraib and the detention facilities, her voice is soft.

"Whenever I remember, it's like a fire goes out," she says. "Once I saw the guards hit a woman, probably 30 years old. They put her in an open area and said, "Come out so you can see her." They pulled her by the hair and poured ice water on her. She was screaming and shouting and crying as they poured water into her mouth. They left her there all night. There was another girl; the soldiers said she wasn't honest with them. They said she gave them wrong information. When I saw her, she had electric burns all over her body."

I ask her if she was sexually assaulted.

"No," she says. "They respected me." She pushes her chair away from the table.

Asked if she was ever forced to take her clothes off, she leans back and pulls her jacket over her chest and covers part of her face with her hand. She looks downward and bites her thumb. Her eyes are half-closed, and her shoulders are slumped.

"I don't remember," she says. She folds her arms across her chest and her eyes fill with tears. She stares at the ground. A few minutes later, she excuses herself and leaves the room.

[ ... ]

Sundus explains how Selwa and Selwa's sister came to her last August. Selwa said she wanted to speak about her detention privately. Her sister left the room. Then Selwa sat down with Sundus. "They did everything bad to me, and may God take them all to hell," Selwa told her. "She began to weep bitterly," recalls Sundus. "She didn't tell the truth to her family."

McKelvey's piece is certainly a positive step towards pulling the real Abu Ghraib scandal back out of the memory hole, towards rolling back the "few bad apples" propaganda campaign that has successfully hidden the extent of the atrocities that took place, and presumably still take place, in our new American gulags -- but I have one problem with it: I think McKelvey could have done a better job of corroborating the claims of her interviewees by mentioning more facts on the public record that support the idea that women and children were raped at Abu Ghraib.

As the article stands, the women's statements seem to float in a vacuum disconnected from the body of the Abu Ghraib narrative, and thus seem less credible than they should, given that these accounts are well supported by other sources. In particular, I wish she would have brought up several events from last spring and summer that led to a brief moment when it appeared (to me at least) that pressure from the blogosphere might push allegations of the rape of children at Abu Ghraib into the mainstream media spotlight: Seymour Hersh's ACLU speech, the German TV magazine Report Mainz's exposé about women and children in Abu Ghraib, and the resulting media fall out. Here are my posts covering these stories from last year, "The Children of Abu Ghraib" and "The Children of Abu Ghraib Redux".

The key point to be gleaned from the pair of old posts is that when McKelvey quotes Multi-National Force spokesman Barry Johnson as saying "There are no allegations of rape by any female detainees. ... If we have allegations and they're brought to us, we would open the case", Johnson is making a statement that is so at odds with the public record that the only reason he can get away with it is because the media didn't do its job last spring. There are allegations of rape that were not just made by detainees but by "U.S. military officials" and not just rape but rape on videotape -- videotape that still presumably exists -- and these allegations were even mentioned briefly on national television. Here's an excerpt from the transcript of MSNBC's coverage of Rumsfeld's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

MIKLASZEWSKI [,NBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over)]: Rumsfeld then dropped a bomb, revealing that there were more photos, even videos depicting abuses far worse than what has been seen so far.

RUMSFELD: There are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.

MIKLASZEWSKI: U.S. military officials tell NBC News, the unreleased images, show American soldiers severely beating one Iraqi prisoner to near death; apparently, raping an Iraqi female prisoner; acting inappropriately with a dead body; and Iraqi guards apparently videotaped by U.S. soldiers raping young boys.

SEN. LINDSAY GRAHAM, SOUTH CAROLINA: We're talking about rape and murder here, we're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience, we're talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges.

Lindsay Graham is correct in the above; we had been talking about rape and murder, at least some of us, but as 2004 eased into 2005 if anyone talks about Abu Ghraib at all anymore they tend to talk about sexual humiliation and the trials of a few bad apples. Maybe McKelvey's piece will do something to change that, but, somehow, I doubt it.

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