Picture Tells a Story
By Pamela Troy
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
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.