I would like to propose a new reality TV show: It's called "The Interrogation." Here's the premise: A TV camera follows American GIs whose sole charge is to make Iraqi detainees "talk." Each group will choose from one of three "persuasive" tactics: (1) kindness, reason, and the promise of a brighter future; (2) old-fashioned torture; and (3) degrading sexual poses demeaning to the manhood of the prisoners but entertaining to bored soldiers.
I'm pretty sure all the GIs would pick (3) — and not only because of the mind-boggling pictures coming out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Some say the antics displayed in those images, playing continually on a TV near you, were an aberration. Our troops, it seems, were unversed in the canons of the Geneva Conventions (there being no other catechism to draw moral illustrations from, you see). I offer another explanation, the same reason my game show would be all too predictable: a culture — our culture — that serves up degradation as a form of daily entertainment, and which can only skew the mental grid our 20-something soldiers work from, thereby stunting their moral options.
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Once upon a time, Americans could boast with some legitimacy of a cultural superiority that was rooted in cold hard facts: a high standard of living, religious and political freedom, an entrepreneurial spirit, and ideals that inspired us to strive for a polity where there is "neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free" — or, in more secular terms, "liberty and justice for all."
Then came television. When it first appeared, the medium was informed by the givens of "polite society." All kinds of things couldn't be said (like "pregnant") and couldn't be shown (like a married couple in a double bed). But now, in 2004 D.A. ("Digital Age"), a woman on Survivor is given the "challenge" of enduring hours on a small platform affixed to a piling in the ocean. She is allowed to stand down only when she exposes her breasts. This, in our unrepressed times, is called "reality."
We must admit that, in such a culture, the abomination of the Abu Ghraib prison is not an anomaly. The soldiers in charge of the detainees didn't pervert justice because we cannot grant "the other" his humanity, or some other fashionable explanation. Rather, it is a reflection of how we perceive ourselves. We have managed through some kind of spiritual and psychological legerdemain to eliminate all notions of shame as counterproductive to personal empowerment while elevating humiliation to a rite of passage.
Whether it's the daddy of modern reality TV — COPS — wherein peace officers bust into inevitably minority neighborhoods, exploiting human misery and sin as a form of entertainment, or some frat brat consuming his 15 minutes of fame by being buried alive in dung beetles and swallowing his own fist on Fear Factor, we have lost a sense of dignity in the name of catharsis, and any sense of privacy in the name of ridding ourselves of "debilitating secrets." In short, public humiliation is now seen as not only inevitable but desirable.
It is this American fetish for exhibitionism the soldiers applied to the people under their control in Iraq. Will our society's "civilization" care package to that country go beyond "one-man, one-vote" to such goodies as game shows that marry strangers for fun and money, and Swan-like self-mutilation in the pursuit of ever-illusive perfection and self-acceptance? (Perhaps, by way of apology, the Bush administration can offer the Abu Ghraib detainees a makeover. After they've been transformed into WASPs with 10 percent body fat, they can compete for an apprenticeship at Halliburton.)
The Iraqi detainees we've seen pictured naked on the floor of Abu Ghraib may be a vicious and scurrilous bunch; it's not without precedent for a liberating force to be so overwhelmed with revulsion at their captives' reckless disregard for life that a reckless disregard for life results: Witness Dwight Eisenhower's brutal treatment of German POWs after he had seen evidence of the atrocities committed at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.But we cannot claim to be on a "mission from God," or anything close to it, when our own people are taking snapshots of hooded, cruciform prisoners threatened with maiming by electrocution.
Americans' unique recipe for bread and circuses — those forms of diversion that keep a complacent and already disengaged populace further distracted while their leaders proceed to plunder them and everyone else — have followed us to Iraq. The populace there has yet to see much bread, but the circus has certainly arrived.
As this war degenerates into its own kind of reality show, with politicians on both sides vying for Election Day brownie points by criticizing one another's motives and agendas, perhaps we should seriously reconsider the legislative mechanisms by which we give our leaders the power to make war in our name. But more to the point right now, we should reject the temptation to self-deception, and feel outright shame at our soldiers' humiliation of those prisoners. Then, perhaps, we can begin to be true to one Founding Father's prescription: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."