30, US President George W Bush condemned the incidents
of Iraq prison abuse and those who perpetrated them,
saying: "That's not the way we do things in America."
Administration officials have launched a campaign to
portray the incidents as isolated aberrations; though,
"systemic" abuse has been charged by the International
Committee of the Red Cross. Amnesty International claims
a "pattern of torture". But while an army report has
described the "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal
abuses" of Iraqi prisoners - including sodomy and other
physical assaults - no one has yet dared compare this to
America's well documented abuse of its own citizens, and
the factors driving abuse at home and abroad.
"Five years ago, after prison scandals gripped
California with tales of guards setting up inmates in
human cockfights and then shooting them dead, the state
Department of Corrections vowed to change its ways,"
read a December 28, 2003 article from the Los Angeles
Times. Notably, the article was entitled "Despite State
Promises, Reform Eludes Prisons", illustrating a
well-established official pattern of effectively
condoning abuse, then paying lip-service to outrage and
reform when a scandal breaks.
The Army Times -
an independent paper read widely in military circles -
called for the removal of America's top Pentagon
mangers, saying that "while responsibility begins with
the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all
the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches
of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership".
Paralleling this question, the Los Angeles Times article
had noted that a US federal court was examining
allegations that both California's corrections
commissioner and the highest levels of his staff had
"stopped internal investigators", the case involving the
suppression of evidence against "brutal guards".
While most officials say rights are important,
the status quo appears sacred, and a well-tread path of
political expediency goes to and from it. US rights
groups and civil-rights attorneys have long described
abuses within the US criminal justice system as part of
a widely entrenched "culture" of official misconduct.
When Oklahoma's Republican Senator James Inhofe declared
that he was "more outraged by the outrage" over the Iraq
abuse than by the abuse itself, he aptly demonstrated a
perspective held by many, one which "justifies" abuse.
At the core of this logic lies the assumption
that those abused have done something to deserve their
illegal and inhumane treatment. And misconduct critics
have long charged that many victims of US law
enforcement abuse are routinely perceived in a manner
similar to that in which rape victims once were - the
victims viewed as having done something to "deserve it".
A December 19, 2003 article by the Washington
Post revealed that a report by the US Justice
Department's Inspector General revealed foreign
detainees rounded up in the wake of September 11 had
their guards "ram them into a wall". The report
concurrently noted that from videotape of the incidents,
"there was no evidence that the detainees had provoked
or attacked the guards".
In 1998, Human Rights
Watch (HRW) released a report on systemic,
coast-to-coast abuse by US law enforcement, "Shielded
from Justice". The report found a pervasive violation of
"the public's trust", coupled with "defective"
accountability systems and a "tolerant" leadership,
allowing US law enforcement to commit crimes with
"impunity" nationwide. As regards what the effective
acceptance of the abuse of such authority has meant in
the United States:
A November 10, 2003 report by Houston's 11 News
began: "Where can you lie, cheat or steal and still keep
your job? Or how about repeatedly getting drunk and
getting behind the wheel? Or assaulting your wife or
girlfriend? The answer in dozens of cases is the Houston
Paralleling Iraqi charges of sodomizing prisoners,
the most famous case in the US was that of Abner Louima
in 1997, sodomized with a toilet plunger, with the blood
and feces-covered plunger then used to break out his
front teeth. When initially investigated by New York
City police, the incident was reported as
"self-inflicted"; though officer Justin Volpe later
pleaded guilty to the crime. The latest major news
report of similar conduct was provided in the November
7, 2003 Minneapolis Star Tribune, with Stephen Porter
alleging that "police sexually assaulted him with the
handle of a toilet plunger", the paper reported, noting
a witness account appeared to corroborate Porter's
HRW's report also addressed the "repeated practice
of torture by Chicago police", with electric shock being
the favored technique, supplemented by burning
prisoners. "Shielded from Justice" specifically cites a
report of electric shock applied to the "head and
genitals". The group notes that after the city "settled
the claim of 13-year-old Marcus Wiggins", the attorneys
representing the boy in his torture suit were able to
secure internal police documents, providing further
evidence to support torture claims. The City of Chicago
did eventually acknowledge that "planned torture"
While US media have reported the use of dogs and
armed threat against Iraqi detainees, a November 7, 2003
report by CBS News detailed a police drug raid on
Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina.
There, students were forced to "lie on the floor", while
they endured "guns put to their head and a K9 dog".
Notably, no drugs were found in the "commando-style
raid", according to CBS, but the "school's principal
defends the dramatic sweep", they reported.
As regards charges that chemicals from broken light
fixtures were poured on some Iraqi detainees, the March
20, 2004 New York Times reported on a police officer
"spraying pepper spray (a powerful chemical irritant
used by police) into the mouth of a man who died in
custody after being wrongly picked up". Lesser incidents
of pepper spray abuse are widely reported as virtually
Regarding the alleged rape of a young Iraqi man in
custody, reports of sexual assault by US law enforcement
frequently surface; notably, a number of these have been
alleged incidents of a male officer attacking a female
officer. As regards the sexual violation of young
people, a June 25, 2003 report by the Associated Press
began by noting that "at least a dozen teenagers
assigned to work with police departments as part of the
Boy Scouts' Law Enforcement Explorers program have
allegedly been sexually abused by officers during the
past year", with the incidents reported from
coast-to-coast. The article mentioned some specific
cases, including a Texas case where "former police
officer John Ross Ewing, 28, was indicted by a grand
jury in March on charges that he sexually assaulted two
male Explorer scouts, ages 15 and 16".
the Iraq accusations made by Army Times, HRW highlighted
that domestic US abuse stems from a "problem of
supervision, management and leadership". The human
rights group also noted that "shortcomings in
recruiting, training and management" extended across the
US law enforcement abuse spectrum. And "Shielded From
Justice" also provides insight as to why early reports
of Iraqi prisoner abuse were ignored, demonstrating a
pattern which HRW domestically termed "federal
Addressing the results of domestic
allegations made to the Civil Rights Division of the US
Justice Department, HRW found that of 10,129 civil
rights cases that were reviewed, approximately 1 in 500
resulted in a Justice Department attempt to prosecute.
More disturbing, HRW found that in some US police
departments the particularly abusive officers are "often
rewarded", being given "positive evaluations and
In their criticism of Pentagon
leadership, Army Times noted: "The message to the
troops: anything goes." And a 1997 Time Magazine article
by former US police chief Joseph McNamara provided the
precise parallel, saying: "This wouldn't happen if some
cops didn't believe they had a mandate for such
A belief in such a "mandate" would
explain Iraq pictures with smiling torturers.
McNamara noted that most contemporary police
misconduct has "an element of police gangsterism. Small
groups of police officers share a fermenting contempt
for the people they encounter." He added: "Rogue cops
band together and cover up one another's crimes." And
the most readily seen aspect of the Iraqi abuse has been
the obvious contempt those perpetrating it have had for
While it is widely accepted that
most of the US military, US law enforcement and US
citizenry are good and decent people, many elements
within American society have long voiced increasing
concern over the disparity between the way the US sees
itself, and the way others are increasingly seeing it.
Notably, it was a US military police officer who
finally broke the Iraq scandal by courageously providing
a CD of abuse's gruesome imagery. In the US it has been
well documented that many good and decent police
officers have attempted to address abuse, only to be
badly abused themselves. But in both Iraq and the US,
patterns of nightmarish abuse have grown which have been
documented as "systemic".
In 1941, famed social
psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in Escape From
Freedom of how those who are sadistic rationalize
their behavior in two ways: the first being retaliation
for a perceived injury; the second is that "by striking
first I am defending myself or my friends against the
danger of being hurt". Fromm reflected: "Man's brain
lives in the 20th century; the heart of most men still
live in the Stone Age."
Footnoting domestic US
police violence, there was a time when this American
journalist wrote laws instead of articles. A January 10,
1997 editorial written by the staff of America's oldest
newspaper, The Hartford Courant, was entitled "Consider
a statewide review board", and advocated the pursuit of
the police accountability legislation I had once
On December 6, 1996 I had chaired the
Senator Tim Upson-Ritt Goldstein, SCOLED Informational
Hearing on Police Accountability in Connecticut's
legislature. But after spreading my legislative proposal
on the national level, by July 1997 I was forced to flee
the US for my life, seeking political asylum in Sweden.
While life-threatening harassment (I was shot
at, had the steering unscrewed on my car, was assaulted
multiple times daily, etc) was determined, I am yet
forced to live underground. A February 10, 1998 Reuters
article explained the reason as "it was by individual
police and not authorized by police authorities".
Amnesty International's Swedish section noted that this
violated Swedish legislation. Later, a June 21, 2001
article in the United Kingdom's Guardian was entitled
"European parliament committee urges Swedes to rethink".
Martin Luther King Jr once observed that "we
live in an age of guided missiles and misguided men".
Cutting to what many see as the heart of
America's problems, the Army Times entitled its article
"A Failure of Leadership at the Highest Levels". As the
father of recently deceased Nick Berg said in criticism
of the administration: "It's not the same America I grew
In the spring of 2002, this journalist
interviewed the Reverend Robert Bosse, SCJ, of the
Chicago-based 8th Day Center for Justice, a
global-justice non-governmental organization whose 4,000
members are primarily Catholic clergy. Bosse expressed a
profound concern as to America's future, and that of the
structures and values which had once made the country.
In considering the end of the road, he saw the
Bush administration as taking, he solemnly noted, a
parallel to World War II Germany, saying: "I thought of
those good people who gradually became collaborators in
an unthinkable crime, all in the name of security."
Ritt Goldstein is an American
investigative political journalist based in Stockholm.
His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia's
Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's
Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service
(IPS), a global news agency.
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