Abu Graib Prison & American Values

There is something surreal about our American president standing in the White House Rose Garden, insisting that the prisoner abuse in Iraq digitally documented by American soldiers, does not really represent American values. Indeed, since Castro took back Cuba from American corporate interests, America has been going all over the world accusing peoples and nations of human rights violations. We truly implied we are better than the rest of humankind in our treatment of others. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution make us so, and we have several "humanitarian" efforts (Panama, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Iraq) to prove our point: We are the good guys!

Reflecting on the atrocities committed in the concentration camps of World War II, the intellectual types were curious whether this was a German/European type phenomenon or could it have happened even with Americans in charge. Thus it was that a sociologist at Yale University, Donald Milgram, conducted an experiment in the 1950s: apply increasingly painful electrical stimuli to an unseen but loud victim; use typical local working folks to run the "shock panel" which was attached to nothing, and put them under firm command: "turn up the current!"

Milgram's results showed that torture (in this case, with non-existent electrical stimuli) was not unique to the Nazi system. Ordinary laborers with typical American values could also easily be commanded to torture, and they would perform as ordered. In other words, the German soldiers who stood at the edge of the killing pits snapping pictures of naked dying victims were not "different." It is universal: human nature will perpetrate torture and voyeur evidence under the right conditions anywhere, anytime; and that includes kids with "American values."

Probably Abu Graib and like prisons in Iraq are more similar to the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam era than to Milgram's experiment. The tragedy at My Lai was basically a lack of leadership and supervision. At My Lai, the top military scapegoat was Lieutenant William Calley, the unit commander. In Iraq we are again starting at the bottom and hoping this too will pass quickly. It wont, unfortunately, not as long as America is totally dependent on oil and the Arab world has most of it. For our personal transportation (cars and light trucks) is also an American value.

Meanwhile one ponders how normal American kids, raised on Beavis and Butthead, NYPD Blue, the Sopranos and other great prime-time television fare (we wont speak of their video games!) could ever dream up such un-American prisoner abuse!

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