UnderCurrents: Representing The America That We Know

Friday May 07, 2004

There is videotape of the beatings by the six guards, available on the Internet for download. Soft and grainy and shot from a distance, still, what is happening is unmistakable. Two prisoners are lying sprawled on the floor, face down, unresisting. An L.A. Times news article graphically describes the scene: “[One of the guards] sits astride [one of the prisoners and] begins punching him with alternating fists, landing a total of 28 blows. At one point, [the guard] can be seen lifting [the prisoner’s] head by the hair in what looks like an effort to get a better angle for his punch. A few feet away, the tape shows [a second guard] slugging [the other prisoner] and using his right knee to pummel him in the neck area as the [prisoner] lies motionless. … One [guard] is seen shooting the [prisoners] with a gun that fires balls of pepper spray, while another sprays their faces with mace.” 

The video also shows one of the guards giving a kick to the head of one of the prisoners with the toe of his boot. 

No, the videotape is not of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. So far as I know, no such videos exist. The video of which I speak documents the beating of two United States citizens—juvenile prisoners under the control of the State of California—by guards of the California Youth Authority at the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, California. Chaderjian. Abu Ghraib. It is easy to get them confused, I suppose. 

(Both the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office and the office of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, by the way, have declined to bring charges against the guards in the incident, citing their contention that there was “no reasonable likelihood of conviction” of the guards in a California courtroom.) 

This week, President George Bush went before representatives of various Arab-language television stations and stated—in reaction to the photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers coming out of Abu Ghraib—that “[this] does not represent the America that I know.” 

No, I suppose not. Mr. Bush has never been a black or Latino kid, locked up by the CYA. 

What one finds most disturbing about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses is this national display of collective shock and surprise as television commentators pass serious comments about the meaning of it all—the widened eyes—the caught breath—the hand over open mouth—the calling in of the multitude of expert commentators—the incredulity that Americans, of all people, could be the author of such acts. Has no-one been paying attention? 

“[This] does not represent the America that I know,” says Mr. Bush. 

The president must, one must guess, therefore never watch broadcast television. The physical abuse by United States guards of prisoners incarcerated in United States jails is so well-known and widespread that it is a running, national joke. Watch any sitcom long enough, and sooner or later someone will make a threat about someone going to prison and having to “do the laundry of a 300-pound cellmate named Bubba.” It is a joke—if one misses the point—about people being raped in United States prisons, a condition that does not invoke calls for investigation, intervention, and reform, but merely a David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld smirk. 

Yes. How very funny. 

America shocked—shocked!—at the Abu Ghraib humiliations? Why should we be? The humiliation of individuals has become an American obsession…it is, in fact, the growing American pastime, surpassing football and baseball as our national sport. We used to hold contests in which people competed, and then judges awarded a prize to the person who they thought performed the best. It was the thrill of the victory in which we wanted to share. The camera focused on the joyous, beaming Star Search winners while the second- and third-placers, mercifully, were hustled offstage before their frozen smiles shattered and their tears flowed over the loss of just-missed dreams. Now, voyeurs of despair, it is the agony of the losers on which we dwell. Televised contest after contest—from ESPN’s new announcer to Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” to American Idol to Elimidate—puts the spotlight not on just the losing, but the degradation of those who lose. 

Our reveling wallow in the culture of suffering has become so widespread that now one national automobile manufacturer—I cannot recall their name because having watched it once, I have to turn it quickly off because I do not want the sickening images in my head—begins with a montage of horrific, swollen knots on people’s heads, then moves to a young yuppie admiring a car and, turning, still distracted, busting his head on an overhanging fixture, knocking himself to the floor. My god. It is the equivalent of selling hamburgers by watching photos of the carnage resultant from highway accidents. America’s Funniest Home Videos—the once-backchannel program where we became comfortable in snickering at people’s pain like a kid thumbing through porno locked in the bathroom—has now come out of the closet and moved into the mainstream. 

But “[this] does not represent the America that I know,” says Mr. Bush. 

Oh. Really? 

“That the way the United States treated its prisoners in occupied Iraq would become a focal point of international scrutiny, and perhaps a critical element in winning the confidence of the Iraqi people, should not have been a surprise to anyone,” the San Francisco Chronicle writes in an editorial. “From the top down, the message from U.S. commanders should have been crystal clear: Humane treatment of prisoners is essential to our mission.” 

No, actually, it’s more fundamental than that. How we treat prisoners under our control is indicative of who we are. It is essential to our very humanity. It is how we are defined, both by ourselves, and by others who either observe or interact with us. Christian doctrine—and the right insists, with pounded breast, that we are a Christian nation—teaches in Matthew 25:40 that “the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” That, again according to New Testament Christian doctrine, is how we are to be judged. 

“[Abu Ghraib] does not represent the America that I know,” says Mr. Bush, in all seriousness. 

If so, he must not have been paying attention.