Should Abu Ghraib Be Destroyed or Preserved?

Iraqis have long known the Abu Ghraib prison as a place of torture, suffering and fear. But should it be torn down?

That's what President Bush has proposed, provided the Iraqis agree. Demolishing the sprawling complex outside of Baghdad would be "a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning," Bush said in a speech this week outlining his plans for handing over power to the Iraqis.

For decades, the prison was notorious for torture under Saddam Hussein. And this spring, it came to light that it was also the site of alleged prisoner abuse by U.S. troops — much of it documented in gruesome photographs that have been shown around the world.

The decision to obliterate such a reviled symbol would seem to be an easy one — but the case to have it destroyed may not be that clearcut.

All around the world, human beings have found more use in preserving sites of tragedy and human suffering than erasing them altogether.

"People derive a lot of feeling knowing that places like that can be visited," said James McGaugh, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in war and trauma.

Memorials to the Dead

The sites of some of the world's worst atrocities have been preserved, rather than demolished, so they stand as reminders of dark periods of history.

Auschwitz in Poland was the site of the murder of more than 1 million people – Polish intellectuals, Soviet prisoners, Jews and Romany during the 1940s. After World War II, it fell into disrepair — but in 1989, Jewish American businessman Ronald Lauder established an international foundation to preserve, and in some cases, rebuild the camp.

Khiam prison was a detention and interrogation camp, notorious for torture, during the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon beginning in 1985. But after the Israeli army withdrew in 2000, Lebanese authorities turned the prison into a museum, frequented by Lebanese and other Arabs.

During the reign of Cambodian despot Pol Pot in the 1970s, tens of thousands of people were jailed, tortured and executed at Tuol Seng prison in Phnom Penh. Less than a decade later, it is one of the country's most-visited tourist sites.

Robben Island, off the coast of South Africa, used to be a prison colony known for its institutional brutality. It is also where Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years. Today, it is a national memorial.

Some Arabs think Abu Ghraib should be preserved too. After Bush's speech, Reem Shehada, 21, a business student in the United Arab Emirates, told Reuters, "The prison should remain because it is a symbol of monstrosity and the occupation."

Preserving a Crime Scene

But it's not just the thought of future generations that is leading the drive to preserve Abu Ghraib. Experts have said that because it is a crime scene, it cannot be destroyed immediately.

"Any evidence pointing to human rights violations and abuses — whether committed during the days of Saddam Hussein or during the period of coalition control — must be adequately preserved, as this evidence may be crucial to the progress of the investigation and prosecutions," said Allistair Hodges of Amnesty International.

The Bush administration apparently hopes that tearing down Abu Ghraib would send a signal — along with strong visual images — to the Arab world that the United States takes the abuse charges seriously.

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