New York Times Op-Ed page, May 7, 2004

My Life As a Guard

When they see the photographs of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraqis and many others around the world will focus on the debasement and humiliation of the Iraqi prisoners. When I looked at the photos, I noticed something more: I couldn’t take my eyes off the American soldiers. I couldn’t stop trying to imagine the scene as one of the photos was set up: “Hey, let’s put ’em in a pyramid. And now, you – get over there and give me the thumbs-up.”

This is not torture as we see it in movies, with bare wires or fizzy water up the nostrils. Those scenes always have an evil sadist directing things, an eccentric genius of pain. These soldiers do not look like sadists or geniuses, but rather like Americans abroad creating their very own souvenirs.

It is a heady thing to have prisoners at your mercy. Prison officials in the United States often say that the job involves “care, custody and control.” In New York, where I worked as a prison guard for almost a year in the late 1990’s, training focuses mainly on the final element – control – but the care and custody are in some ways more crucial. Because therein lies the true test of the officer, the system and indeed the nation: how will you treat those who are helpless before you?

President Bush has said that “the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don’t represent America.” How, then, does such abuse happen?

Prison work is easier if you don’t get too personal with the prisoners, don’t empathize with them too much. Soldiering is probably the same: it’s easier to fight the enemy if he is faceless, less than human. A military prison, then, has the potential to be the most heartless of worlds. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Third Geneva Convention, revised in 1949, addresses the rights of prisoners of war; the horrors of World War II were the great stimulus to the writing of the convention. The nations of the world, including America, were nearly unanimous that such atrocities should never be allowed to be visited upon anybody again, anywhere.

But here we see the faces of the American torturers of wartime prisoners – and they seem to be having a pretty good time. And the victims of this torture, it should not surprise us, are hooded and . . . faceless.

Up the chain of command, heads are rolling, of course; the general who was in charge of the prison has been reprimanded, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have received a dressing-down from the president. Not all those depicted in the photos have been charged, and they may have played a small or minor role, although six military police officers at Abu Ghraib are facing courts-martial. Still, there’s been no answer yet as to how this was allowed to happen.

In the prison where I worked (and in most prisons, I suspect), there are two sets of rules. There are the official rules, which you learn during training and carry in a booklet in your pocket. And then there are the real rules – the knowing what you can and cannot get away with.

Prison officers, in charge of people who are usually not nice, are bound to overstep the rules occasionally. The infractions may be relatively minor, like forgetting to unlock the cell of a difficult inmate when it’s recreation time, or more serious, like participating in an “adjustment” of an abusive inmate. And when and if the incidents are made public, the test is always: will your superiors back you up? Is the boss a good guy or a jerk? Which rule book does he follow?

In a prison, of course, the boss is the superintendent or warden. He’s the one who, in ways that are sometimes unspoken, sets the tone for the institution, making clear what’s acceptable and what is not.

In a military prison during a time of war, it may be little harder to divine exactly who is in charge, and what’s likely to happen if something goes wrong – if a prisoner dies during interrogation, for example. The discredited former commander of Abu Ghraib, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has said that while the soldiers in the photos were technically under her command, military intelligence effectively ran the unit where the abuse took place.

What we do know about the treatment of prisoners in this “war on terror” (of which Iraq, we are told, is a part), is that the Geneva Conventions don’t always apply – the prison at Guantánamo Bay, filled with hundreds of “enemy combatants” (who are not afforded the protections of P.O.W.’s) being Exhibit No. 1. Is Guantánamo different from Abu Ghraib? The administration would say yes. Then again, the new head of Abu Ghraib, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, was in charge of the interrogations at Guantánamo until just recently.

President Bush may indeed have felt “deep disgust” upon seeing these torture photos. Then again, the man who sets the tone for the entire war effort has never claimed to be the prisoner-protection president.

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