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Abu Ghraib: Gazing Into The Abyss

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George Orwell said that good prose was like a windowpane. He should know; his own windowpanes often revealed painfully clear views of the 20th century. When a writer’s work is capable of being admired by both extremes of a political spectrum, in this case Christopher Hitchins and Michael Moore, then surely it contains something essential about the human condition.

One of Orwell’s As I Please essays, written on September 8th 1944, has special bearing upon the Abu Ghraib pictures. In his essay, Orwell wrote about the humiliation of two female French collaborators:

"I have before me an exceptionally disgusting photograph, from the Star of August 29, of two partially undressed women, with shaven heads and with swastikas painted on their faces, being led through the streets of Paris amid grinning onlookers. The Star — not that I am picking on the Star, for most of the press has behaved likewise — reproduces this photograph with seeming approval."

Brutality souvenirs are not new.Royalcrackshot01_1 In the old American south, photographs of lynchings were sold as souvenirs and keepsakes. In Nazi Germany, ordinary soldiers sent back photographs of their murdered victims. Hunters like to pose with their quarry [Image source: deendayal.com]. In many of these brutality keepsakes, perpetrators are in high spirits. The source of their humor is not clear, but perhaps it’s the relief that they are not them or it

In his essay, Orwell suggested that people wearied by years of unending warfare against a brutal enemy tend to become brutes. He ended with a quote from Nietzsche — always reliably gloomy — who warned against staring into abysses and fighting dragons. It’s a plausible hypothesis.

However, like Nietzsche, Orwell’s great talent was to be usefully wrong. He was wrong about how best to make tea. He was wrong about politics. He was wrong about the degradation of the English language. He was usually wrong about the future (when he was right, as he was in Animal Farm, it was because the particular future he talked about had already happened). And I think he was wrong about what that picture said about human beings. Orwell didn’t see that his professional skill — every good writer’s skill — namely, the ability to imagine being someone else (a hunted tiger, a shamed woman, a brutalized Jew) would become widespread in the coming decades. As the blogsphere indicates, aren’t we all writers now?

Orwell accused the newspapers of his time as being indifferent, even supportive, of the abuse. Compare that with how the world reacted to the Abu Ghraib photographs. The near-universal horror indicates, I think, that most of us were able to imagine being those poor Iraqi prisoners. It’s getting tough to find lynchings and shikars and whippings and public brandings. Israel, who’s been fighting its dragon for the past 60 years, hasn’t become Nazi Germany or the Hamas. And the ones who leaked the first set of Abu Ghraib pictures to the media were ordinary American soldiers, not intrepid reporters. They survived the abyss.

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About Anil Menon