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Every Picture Tells a Story
May 7, 2004
By Pamela Troy

We've all looked at the picures from Abu Ghraib and given a collective gasp of horror. Tongues are being clucked, heads shaken. Words like "disgusting," "degrading," "humiliating," "inhumane," are being bandied about on media broadcasts. Those poor dumb twenty-somethings who were conned into believing this was all right, who were put in an environment where they thought they could pose for pictures next to the people they were abusing, will be loudly and publicly punished for it. Examples will be made of a few officers.

But let's not kid ourselves. If there had been no photographs, if all it had been was words on paper or the recorded testimony of witnesses and victims, there would be barely a ripple in the public consciousness. A few leftist and liberal outlets would cover it, there would be reports in The Nation or from Amnesty International but that's about it. And if 60 Minutes had shown only interviews and highlighted quotes from reports, nothing much would have happened.

There would be denials of course, but much of the response would also have been low-balling and justification, not only from those who were involved but from the media and much of the American public. Instead of "disgusting," "degrading" and "inhumane" on news broadcasts, we'd be hearing "troubling," "disturbing" or, that word most often used by the mainstream media to low-ball our own atrocities, "regrettable."

On the day after the 60 Minutes piece aired, talk around the office coffeemaker would be fairly predictable. "War is hell," someone would sagely observe, "these things happen." Someone else (there's one in every office) would even snicker about the stories and boast, with the air of a clear-sighted warrior unafraid to get his or her hands dirty, "You know what? I really don't give a damn! Not after what they did to our boys in Fallujah!"

Do I sound cynical? Well, for the past two decades, I've been listening to my fellow Americans talk about the treatment of prisoners, especially the sexual abuse of prisoners. Not foreign prisoners either, but American inmates. Not terrorists or even murderers, but the nonviolent offenders who make up the majority of our prison population petty thieves, drug offenders, vandals. Not just adult inmates, but teenage convicts. And the widespread assumption has been that sexual abuse in prisons is nothing that the average citizen need bother his or her head about.

Indeed, it's often regarded as amusing. Not so long ago, in the wake of a widely publicized, highly emotional trial here in California, a local paper published a real knee-slapper of a cartoon showing the woman who'd been convicted facing the prospect of rape by a fellow inmate.

The only time we wipe the smirk off our faces and look really serious about prison rape is when we use it to frighten young people about the consequences of being caught with a baggie of grass. Back when I was a teenager in the '70s, the "Scared Straight" Program came to our high school. I sat in an auditorium and listened to a convicted drug offender talk about being gang-banged by the other prisoners. Sitting off to one side were prison and school officials nodding in repulsive agreement.

Yessiree, that was quite a lesson in morality for us. Rape, we learned, is all right and will go unpunished if the victim is in prison. (Cynical even at seventeen, I could not help but wonder at the time whether those prison officials would be so smugly confirming the convict's account if we'd been an audience of adult human rights activists instead of high school students.)

So, many Americans accept the sexual abuse of American inmates with a casual shrug, even with a certain amount of relish. "You know the old saying, 'Don't do the crime if you can't do the time,'" said a State Trooper a few years ago. He was talking about a case where a fifteen-year-old boy he'd arrested, while serving a 2 to 15 year prison sentence for breaking into a house and terrifying its elderly residents, was raped for three nights in a row by his 20-year-old cellmate.

He could have as easily said it about 16-year-old Rodney Hulin Jr., sentenced to eight years in adult prison for setting a fire that did $500 worth of damage. Two weeks into prison he was raped by another inmate. "I will be taking an HIV test in a few days," he wrote his father, "because there are about 2,000 inmates here, half are HIV positive." His requests to be moved to a safe place were denied, and he was beaten and sexually assaulted repeatedly for several months. It came to an end when he hanged himself in his cell. Hulin died four months later from a coma from which he never emerged.

And now we're all shocked, shocked I tell you, about the photos from Iraq. Where oh where, we wail, could anyone have gotten the idea that this abuse of prisoners was acceptable?

Come off it, folks. Yes, there are Americans who give a damn about these things, but their voices tend to be drowned out the chorus of citizens who, faced with accounts of prison rape, thrust out their chests, narrow their eyes and proclaim their lack of compassion for the "scum" crammed into our prisons. This current public outcry, so significantly absent when our own prisoners are abused off camera, is not about compassion. It's about our own embarrassment. Someone made Americans look like a bunch of perverts by taking sexually-explicit pictures.

That's what it takes to hit us in the gut and get our attention: blurred-out butts and penises.

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