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How can I explain this to my Russian friends?  
By Cynthia Annett | May 28, 2004
I still have not gotten over the shock of seeing photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American military personnel. It was a real blow. I was returning from my latest trip (the 19th I have made) to Russia when I learned of the news coming out of Abu Ghraib prison. By the time I got to my seat on the plane from Moscow to New York I was already exhausted by the hard three-day trip from Siberia. When the flight attendant came up behind me and asked a question I was slow to respond—I actually don't remember responding at all. But as she passed by she tossed a copy of USA Today in my lap. And immediately I wished she hadn't. Staring at me from the front page was a picture of an American woman in military fatigues holding onto a leash strapped around a naked man's neck. I stared at it. I was sickened by what I saw. But it got worse; inside was a photo of the same woman with another soldier, smiling and giving a "thumbs up" sign behind a pile of human bodies. What a horrible way to be welcomed home.

I've been back for two weeks now and during that time we have learned that this wasn't an isolated event, and that it wasn't limited to a group of untrained and unsupervised reservists. It is something that was rooted in the policies of the Bush administration and something that reflects very badly on the state of our democracy.

In the early 90's, during the first Bush administration, I was sent to Siberia for the first time to run programs promoting democratization and the development of civil society. The Russians I met universally considered America to be "The" model society governed by the rule of law, respect for human rights, and the balance of power—an ideal they had long dreamed of for their own country. We Americans had the moral high ground when the Soviet Union collapsed. Fledgling democracies throughout Eastern Europe and Eurasia scrambled to make themselves over in our image.

But events during the second Bush administration seem to contradict everything we once represented to the world. Americans now seem willing to dispose of their democratic institutions as if they meant nothing. What happened? What changed? How have we come to a point where the second Bush administration was able to maneuver around the bedrock of international human rights, the Geneva Conventions? How have we allowed this second Bush administration to engage in unprovoked warfare based on falsified evidence? How have we allowed ourselves to be forced to give up fundamental rights in this country? And why have we allowed our government to repeatedly violate human rights internationally? How is it that we aren't rising up to defend our democracy? Have we forgotten the importance of the balance of power and the rule of law? Have we forgotten what a democracy actually is?

We seem to have forgotten something very important: there is a line that cannot be crossed. There is a baseline below which we cannot go—that line demarcates what it is to be a member of humanity. The basic truth is that once we engage in the process of dehumanizing a person through torture and humiliation we not only destroy their humanity, we give up our own humanity in the process. That is the line. I am not speaking here of abstract ethical concepts, I am speaking as someone who just returned from Siberia. Yes, from Siberia, a place that is synonymous in most American's minds with torture and political repression. The place where the infamous Gulag Archipelago taught us what happens to a society that dehumanizes its people.

In the two weeks since I took that long trip home from Siberia I have felt as if my world has somehow been turned upside down. I have had to face the fact that torture and political violence are now seen to be acceptable to my own government. The repression that we have been working all these years to fight internationally seems to be taking hold at home.

While I was in Siberia last month I was surrounded by people actively engaged in the hard work of building local democratic institutions. For fifteen years now I have watched as they emerged from the repression of the Soviet period and worked steadily to create an atmosphere of freedom and institute the reforms necessary to nurture democratic institutions at the local level. They have remained on the long hard road to democratic reform. Is my own country now on the opposite trajectory?

I wish I could say that those photos were nothing more than an inexplicable aberration and that Americans would never engage in something so horrid. But I remember the discussions in the media when the Bush administration began "floating" the idea that there may be circumstances where torture would be an appropriate tool for information gathering. And I remember the reports that we allowed (asked?) other countries to do interrogations for us using torture. I remember the repeated reports from Guantanamo Bay about abuse. And we have all seen the humiliating photographs of prisoners from Afghanistan having their beards shaved while being forced to kneel with their hands tied. And we have heard rumors of dozens of prisoners dying during interrogation. This has been building for a long time. And now we learn that what was created in Afghanistan has been exported to Iraq. What should never have happened under any circumstances, anywhere, has become administration "policy"; America can now count itself amongst those nations who engage in state sponsored torture.

Despite what our President says, this is not a matter for "damage control". This is not about needing to improve "America's image". This is not about "image", as if the images in those photos were created by an ad executive or a Hollywood movie director and could be combated by producing another set of "images". These are pictures of real people. Those naked bodies piled up in that photo are human beings. These are people who have been stripped of their humanity and treated as despised objects.

A couple of weeks ago I stood in front of a room full of Siberian college students talking about what it meant to live in a country with a free press. One of the students interrupted to ask how Americans define democracy. Another built on the question by asking whether America had changed its definition of democracy and now considered bombing a country to be the right way to instill democracy. For young Siberians growing up with the promise that everything would be better now that they were themselves a democracy, these were important questions. But my answer was probably not what they expected. I said that America is like Russia; it is a huge country, it is a powerful country, and it is a diverse country. There are many different kinds of people, and the differences between people aren't just racial or cultural, the differences also concern the type of politics people engage in and their definitions of democracy. I said that in America, like in Russia, there are people with very different concepts of what they call "democracy". I told them that what they were witnessing right now was a struggle in my country over what "democracy" was and what our democracy would become. I told them that for myself, my understanding of democracy was what was done between us, all of us in the room, together. It was about how we decided to treat each other, what process we used to make decisions, how open we were when we talked to each other, it was about our ability to think about what we do to each other, and it was about how fair we were in the way we dealt with each other. Democracy was not something you did with armies and tanks and bombs, it was what we did together, what was done between human beings. I was surprised to see heads nod all around the room.

I hope that I would have seen a similar response from American students their age, but I don't know; we have heard so much jingoism during the past three years that it is hard to tell how much my fellow Americans are actually thinking about what they are doing. I don't know what young Americans would say about an answer like that—maybe they would have preferred an answer that included tanks and armies and blowing things up.

Which brings me back to those horrible images; photographs of an American woman barely older than the Siberian students I had spoken to. How would the young woman in those photographs have responded to my answer? Would she have nodded her head along with the young Siberians? Would she have thought that democracy was "what is done between us in the room together"? When I looked at the grin on her face as she stood next to that pile of human bodies, humans that she was treating as mere objects with no humanity, I had my doubts. The smile on her face gave me doubts about whether she understood democracy as I did. Or whether she understood humanity as I did.

"Following orders" is no defense for the soldiers who perpetrated these crimes against humanity. And it is not a valid defense for officers and administration officials who claim to be innocent because they are buffered from the crimes by the chain of command. Neither the soldiers nor the officials can get off so easily. It is the soldier's duty to refuse to participate in acts against prisoners that violate basic human rights. The soldiers who exposed the abuses are a courageous example of appropriate behavior under the circumstances. And it is the duty of the commanding officers and responsible administration officials to be aware of what is happening under their command. It is hard for me to believe that the very same officials who once floated the idea of using torture when interviewed on the evening news are surprised that torture has occurred under their command. Or that the administration that announced to the world that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not protected by the Geneva Conventions was unaware that the Geneva Conventions had been violated. Do they really expect us to believe that they knew nothing of the level of abuse happening in the prisons they set up? Isn't this exactly what they were telling us they were planning to do?

There are ideas that should never be unleashed on the world. The idea that torture can be justified is one of the most obvious. That is an idea that should have died in American society long ago. After all, we are a democracy.

 


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