I just watched the short video of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison. The Washington Post has it on their site, only releasing a small portion of what they hold. I sat braced, forced myself to watch it.
Why did I do that; why did I think it necessary that I watch the small tape?
Part voyeurism, all curiosity, really. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, I wanted to see the body language and the humiliation unfold and go beyond the snapshot of a photo, finding its way into the prolonged movements of an entire scene. I wanted to see it because the scenario had begun to slip out of the consciousness of popular audiences, most of us already focusing our attention on other events, forgetting about the humiliation endured by the men and women on this grotesque reel.
I got more than I bargained for, and I’ve been trying to deal with it ever since. The video itself is grainy and dark, with two particular elements worthy of note: the green gloves worn by the American soldier and the hoods placed over the faces of the Iraqi men being abused.
I watched the American soldier tell one Iraqi man to strip, then give him a quick slap across the face (for good measure, no doubt) with those gloves. I watched as the same American soldier pulled the gloves a little higher and then grabbed another Iraqi man, pulling him to the left of the shot. I was staring at the green gloves as they pushed, prodded and ordered the Iraqi men. Then I watched as the American hero in the video pulled an already naked and hooded Iraqi man to the right of the screen, placed him on all fours and, with the gloved hands, pulled the hood off, just so that the Iraqi man could see his surroundings, and watched as the same gloves put the hood back on…
The bright green gloves reminded me of those used in Hollywood movies, worn by the good guy as he prepares to remove the gigantic tube of toxins from an even larger basin of nuclear-like glowing liquid. The gloves are there to protect the hero from the enemy, they are a barrier from the pollution over which the hero hovers.
Then I thought of the other Hollywood movies; the ones where the mad scientist is wearing those same green gloves, shielding his eyes with massive glasses, lest the chemical toxins he’s cooking up splash out and burn him. Either way you slice it, the green gloves are there for protection from a deadly substance, something vile and gross, worthy of the audience’s disgust.
For the duration of the video, I was also thanking God that the Iraqi men were hooded, their eyes diverted from the leering and smiling faces of the American soldiers. Our eyes give us away, they give away our feelings of hurt and humiliation, fear and anguish; I don’t think the Americans were smart enough to understand that had they removed the hoods, the humiliation of these Iraqi men would have been ten-fold, the trauma so much more penetrating…most especially when they were forced to simulate sex with one another, the threat of seeing the others’ humiliation so potentially devastating, if only because they would then recognize how they must appear.
There was a brief moment when the green-gloved monster pulled one of the hoods off an Iraqi prisoner. The Iraqi man looked up at the soldier, resigned, tired, exhausted, naked, completely vulnerable and very aware that he was at the mercy of the American soldier. In that instant, my hands came up to my mouth, my breathing stopped. I didn’t want the American soldier to have the luxury of seeing the Iraqi man’s face, I was so angry that for a split second, the American had the opportunity to see any sort of expression in his prisoner’s eyes. I was hoping the hood would go back on, praying that the Iraqi man would have his privacy, if only in his head.
The American soldier couldn’t be bothered to recognize that the person before him was a human being, and so threw the hood back on. I didn’t want the Iraqi man to be further humiliated…I don’t ever want to see the faces of these men; I want to give them that much, because we have been witness to their degradation. I want to know that when they walk down the street no one knows which ones they were in the photos or in the video. One thing to know that an individual has been raped, another thing to have actually watched it…every time you see them, the image that replaces the person before you is the gross still of their abuse.
Since watching the video, I’ve had trouble sleeping. I find myself thinking of the movements captured on screen, my only solace is that I couldn’t see the faces of the Iraqi men. Perhaps this is a measurement of dehumanization I have yet to understand, one that can only be felt by an audience in pain. Worst of all, I recognize this is a luxury to me and to perhaps 99% of the audience, because I know that the mothers of these men would have recognized their sons, even the ones hooded and covered in feces. That their sisters and their wives and their children would have recognized their slightest movements. And when I think of that, I find that once again I’ve stopped breathing.