The Failure of Liberal Journalism on Abu Ghraib

Will the full story of Abu Ghraib come to light this year? Government documents acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request have turned up a mountain of evidence proving that what happened really was torture, that it was widespread, and that it was authorized from above.1 Torture is once again serious business.

But with Alberto Gonzales confirmed and Charles Graner convicted,2 the liberal strategy of treating Abu Ghraib as simply an infraction of law is ripe to be discredited. The Gonzales confirmation especially shows the futility of reading Abu Ghraib as a narrative about the subversion of law rather than one about the corruption of political culture to which the law has long ago become irrelevant.

Here are some articles on the subject that illustrate the futility of the liberal approach to Abu Ghraib. On one hand, Rich Lowry of the National Review describes the new photos as the work largely of one thuggish guard: 

For those hoping for a broader prison scandal, there was this uncomfortable fact about the new batch of Abu Ghraib photos published by the Washington Post a few weeks ago: Graner was, again, there in many of them . . . or he was the ringleader of much of it, exactly as the military has maintained.3

On the other hand, Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post seems fearful that the torture memos may get in the way of future “humanitarian” interventions:

In fact, anyone who has ever wanted the United States to play a role in promoting and supporting democracy and human rights around the world — and this includes a wide swath of the conservative movement — ought to oppose the appointment of Alberto Gonzales, if only on the grounds that he is associated with bad legal advice that has damaged our ability to do so.4

This is the Scylla and Charybdis between which the reader has to negotiate — the conservative, exonerating himself with insincere apologies and selective evidence in a convenient narrative of low-level infraction and individual perversion, and the liberal, pursing her mouth in distaste at the lurid while hastily fitting a legal shroud over the Bush administration lest it get in the way of future more sanitized interventions by Democrats.

Consider the evidence Lowry selects. Ignoring scores of incidents documented and proved by the military itself — beatings, sexual abuse, cigarette burns, electroshock, neglect that left prisoners defecating and urinating on themselves, and even murder — he presents photos that he hopes will seem closer to humiliation rather than torture, that will seem lurid rather than brutal to nudity-saturated Americans. And he makes sure to point out that these were prisoners who were after all being punished for their wrong-doing. They were reprobates, perverts; some were even accused of juvenile rape. Forcing them to form a nude pyramid might seem to many readers the very mildest of punishments. Readers might even suspect that some prisoners enjoyed it.

Among the pictures that have led to criminal charges, there is only one where members of military intelligence are visible. It is the notorious shot of three naked men shackled together on the floor. The picture is horrifying, but had nothing to do with interrogation policy or the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. The men were being punished for allegedly raping a boy at the prison.5

In fact, testimony at Charles Graner’s trial on January 12, 2005 had already indicated that Graner was guilty of far more than building naked pyramids:

In his testimony, [Ameen] al-Sheik identified Graner, 36, as the guard who smashed a stick against his injured legs. . . . Al-Sheik called Graner “the primary torturer” and said the reservist forced inmates to eat from a toilet, smashed them with his fists and threatened them with snarling police dogs.6    

Yet, following the same tack as Stephen Cambone at the Senate Hearing in May 2004, Lowry insists that these new photos prove that military intelligence wasn’t involved. Why the insistence? Simple. Because military intelligence would lead the eye upward to the people at the top. And Lowry does not want that:

Yes, there was poor leadership at Abu Ghraib. . . . But there’s no indication that the stomach-turning photographed abuse was ordered from on high as a method of interrogating prisoners.7

Of course, it is the culture of military intelligence — not the ghastly photos or even the New York Times‘ beloved “torture memos” — where the real story of Abu Ghraib hides; and of course, Rich Lowry knows this. That’s why he’s only too glad to fight the Times on its own terms. He writes:

“Lawyers Decided Bans on Torture Didn’t Bind Bush,” reads an eye-popping headline in the New York Times. But when the story moves from an account of the legalistic musings of administration lawyers to the interrogation techniques actually approved by senior officials, it gets less sensational. Rumsfeld approved harsh techniques against a Saudi detainee suspected of being part of the Sept. 11 plot, the Times reports, “including serving the detainee cold, prepackaged food instead of hot rations and shaving off his facial hair.” This is a far cry from stacking naked Iraqi detainees on top of each other, a far cry from the work of Specialist Charles Graner.8

Of course it is. And that is precisely why it is impossible to tie these two worlds together: the filthy, stinking bloodstained cells and the legal briefs issued worlds away in air-conditioned and antiseptic offices. No matter how often we revisit that trail, it turns cold on us; however many documents and memos are cited and chronologically ordered in Time or Newsweek, the blood congeals. The public will not be outraged by legal proofs. Abu Ghraib will never be understood through the mechanism of the law. It cannot be.

What is exposed instead is the curious selectivity of the Times9 in leaving out from the 17 item list of Category II techniques that Rumsfeld authorized on December 2, 200210 some other more unpleasant ones: isolation for up to a month, sound and light deprivation, hooding during interrogation, removal of clothing and “all comfort items,” 20-hour interrogations, and stress inducement which included the use of dogs. What was the Times’ purpose in leaving these out and selecting only the offenses against religious sensibility? Was it to suggest religious bigotry on the part of the perpetrators or to play to the prejudices of readers or merely to minimize the severity of the approved techniques?  How does the Times make a case against Rumsfeld when it omits the one tactic he approved that provoked the most outrage — using dogs to intimidate prisoners? Eliminate the real details of what went on at Abu Ghraib, substitute a handful of strangely artistic nudes, and it’s only too easy for the National Review to make its case that the chatter about legal memos is simply a Victorian swoon by liberals. This is exactly what Lowry does:

This is the nub. Those who believe — apparently as a theological matter — that Geneva applies to al Qaeda must believe that its terrorists are entitled to dormitories, sports equipment, pay allowances and pretty much anything you remember from Hogan’s Heroes. Most importantly, they can’t be interrogated.11

But here Lowry is wrong. Both he and Gonzales ingeniously misuse the language of the Conventions which doesn’t claim that POWs be given “sports equipment,” as he says, but that they be allowed to receive them if they are sent them privately. But Lowry is right in another sense. Theologically is precisely how liberals have used the legal issues in this matter and that is why their efforts simply add to the already obstinate red-state conviction that “liberals” enlist the priesthood of law to sanctify policies or positions that can’t win on their own merits in the marketplace of ideas.

On this both conservatives and the public concur. Andrew McCarthy is right in concluding in a January 2005 National Review article that Alberto Gonzales’ “position on this matter [of treatment of detainees from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban at Gitmo] is not a radical view.12 It’s America’s view.”

The right even claims that the 1977 Protocol I to the Conventions that protects non-state actors was simply a partisan addition tacked on by Democrats and that the national liberation movements they were meant to protect were simply terrorist organizations. Given that, why would today’s resurgent right-wing embrace a legal doctrine championed by Democrats and rejected by their hero Reagan? Why should we expect any other outcome except the “promotion of the promoter of torture” as one conservative publication put it?13 Again, one cannot state too often that the law is part of the problem for conservatives and for much of America and that liberals who fail to see this becomes no more than unwitting co-conspirators with conservatives in the legitimizing of torture.

That is why publicizing the Bybee memo, the formal legal opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel, has had so little public impact although it was widely recognized by the legal community as an unprecedented arrogation of presidential power.14 The memo interpreted the Convention Against Torture as well as the 1996 War Crimes provision enacted by Congress in such a way as to limit torture to activities “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” It went on to argue that Americans could defend themselves against criminal prosecution for torture by claiming they were acting out of necessity and/or self-defense in response to 9-11. It also asserted that the President’s commander-in-chief powers made criminal law prohibitions of  torture “unconstitutional.”15 Yet, the memo was publicized without a murmur from the public. Why? Because the media failed to provide the historical and political context against which the significance of the torture memos could be measured. Without that, they remained dry, arcane documents.

We can generalize even further. As long as movements for political and economic liberation are characterized as terror and state terror is disguised in the language of liberation theology, Abu Ghraib is always going to be acceptable to an inflamed population as necessary to “security.” As long as state terror is unacknowledged or normalized or hidden in covert actions, violent acts by individuals can be exaggerated so that they seem to throw up a monstrous irrational shadow against which surveillance and espionage and their other face — torture —  can be justified as the state’s rational response. And it is finally the political context of this state surveillance — the pervasive presence, both explicit and subliminal, of an infinite voyeurism that replicates and circulates its power in every transaction in society — that permits and finally sanctions the pornographic violence of the state. This is the context which is fragmented or erased altogether by the media. This is the context without which Abu Ghraib — and in Arabic, Abu Ghurayb means the father of the raven, a bird of ill-omen — becomes no more than isolated and senseless acts rather than what it is literally — a prefiguration of things, a dark messenger from the future, a sign of evil to come.


1 American Civil Liberties Union, “Government Documents on Torture” (records the government has released under court order in response to the ACLU’s FOIA request).

2 T. T. Reid, “Guard Convicted in the First Trial from Abu Ghraib,” Washington Post (15 January 2005).

3 Rich Lowry, “Thug at the Prison,” National Review (14 June 2004).

4 Anne Applebaum, “Does the Right Remember Abu Ghraib?” Washington Post (5 January 2005).

5 Lowry, op. cit.

6 T.R. Reid, “Case Against Soldier Is Presented: Two Ex-Detainees Describe Alleged Abuse at Prison in Iraq,” Washington Post (12 January 2005).

7 Lowry, op. cit.

8 Lowry, op. cit. Neil Lewis and Eric Schmitt, “Lawyers Decided Bans on Torture Didn’t Bind Bush,” New York Times (8 June 2004).

9 Neil Lewis and Eric Schmitt, “Lawyers Decided Bans on Torture Didn’t Bind Bush,” New York Times (8 June 2004).

10 “Action Memorandum from the General Counsel of the Department of Defense” (2 December 2002); see also “Memorandum for the General Counsel of the Department of Defense” (15 January 2003).

11 Rich Lowry, “Bring It On: the Real Gonzales Fight,” National Review (7 January 2005).

12 Andrew McCarthy, “Should We Make a Treaty with al Qaeda?” National Review (5 January 2005).

13 Lee A. Casey & David B. Rivkin Jr., “Gunning for Gonzales,” National Review (31 December 2004).

14 Co-authored with John Yoo, a Berkeley law professor.

15 Peter Brooks, “The Plain Meaning of Torture? Literary Deconstruction and the Bush Administration’s Legal Reasoning,” Slate (9 February 2005).

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. She has an advanced degree in politics from the Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Maryland. Her writings can be found on Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, and AlterNet, among others. Her book The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media was published by Monthly Review Press this year. The schedule of her speaking engagements is available here. Would you like to invite Lila Rajiva to meet and talk to your group? Contact Martin Paddio at <>.