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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky

Posted: December 10, 2005 01:11 PM

Seeds of Abu Ghraib

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In January Army Specialist Charles Graner Jr. was sentenced by a military court in Fort Hood, Texas, to ten years behind bars. His crimes: assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and committing indecent acts.

Nearly a year after the infamous photographs of US military personnel abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad had come to light, the graphic allegations of sexual abuse, of guards forcing inmates to masturbate, of naked prisoners stacked into pyramids, of prisoners being hooded and draped with electric wires and of routine beatings, the 36-year-old Graner was taking the rap, labeled by prosecutors as the mastermind of the cell-block sadism.

Throughout his trial, the reservist had claimed he was only following orders, that his superiors had demanded the prisoners be violently "softened up" before being interrogated by military intelligence personnel. In the end the jury, four officers and six high-ranking enlisted men, all of whom had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, didn't buy his argument. "I was only obeying orders" apparently didn't cut it as a moral defense in 2005 any more than it did at the Nuremberg trials.

Whether Graner was actually following the orders of superiors--as Seymour Hersh and others have convincingly argued, and as the copiously documented book The Torture Papers suggests--is clearly critical to understanding the larger context of Abu Ghraib. Wherever one comes down on that question, though, there can be no doubt that Graner is guilty of torture. And so there remains the troubling matter of Graner himself: not just who he is--his biographical details are by now well-known--but how he formed his values and beliefs, what sorts of experiences shaped him. Where, in other words, did Charles Graner come from? And, moreover, what does the small world from which he emerged make of his newfound notoriety? In the answers to those questions may be a few additional clues to the Abu Ghraib atrocities: not only who is responsible, but what they show about American society--where its moral compass on torture lies today.

In 2004, as the macabre images flowed out of Abu Ghraib, the little coal-mining town of Waynesburg, in Appalachian southwestern Pennsylvania's Greene County, was put in an unwelcome spotlight. For it soon came out that Graner, in his civilian incarnation, was a correctional officer at SCI Greene, a supermax prison that had opened in the town a decade earlier.

Like Graner, who served for several years in the Marines in the 1980s and early '90s, most guards at SCI Greene have served in the military, hired by the department of corrections as part of a preferential hiring process for veterans that has turned many prisons into virtual preserves for retired military personnel. Over the past four years, dozens of SCI Greene's staffers have been reactivated into National Guard and Army Reserve units and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. As of this past summer, the prison administration estimated that of about 700 prison employees, twenty-nine staff, twenty-six of whom were guards, were currently on active duty. Another thirty-seven had been activated at some point since 2001 but had since returned to the prison.

It is, say some, a recipe for trouble both in Iraq and stateside. According to some of Graner's colleagues, many correctional officers, from small communities a long way from large, multicultural urban centers, bring with them to America's Middle Eastern wars a dislike of Muslims cultivated inside prisons like SCI Greene, where interactions with confrontational black Muslim inmates are often the only contact with Islam these officers have ever had. "We look at these inmates. Some are drug dealers, murderers, pedophiles, rapists. Some became Muslim and have special religious needs and beliefs," says one SCI Greene guard. "We have a perspective that half are involved for something to do and half are really believers. With the Muslims and the things we have to go through to abide by their needs and wants, you have a sense of annoyance--'I can't believe these guys here broke the law and are in prison and we have to do all these things for them.'"

Prison guards also bring with them high stress levels and hair-trigger tempers cultivated during years of working with maximum security inmates in some of the nastiest environments imaginable. It's no surprise that rates of divorce, alcoholism and depression are high among correctional officers.

The town's tourism officer, Tara Kinsell, recalls that after her husband (now ex-) went to work at SCI Greene he became "more angry. He would be very quiet, really did not like being around people. He has some anger issues--the guy that has the road rage kind of thing. It [working in the prison] had a tendency to prejudice them [the guards]. They deal with high populations of certain cultures--Muslims, blacks, Hispanics--and when your environment is just those kind of people daily, it clouds your judgment. So, when you meet people outside prison in your daily life, it clouds your perceptions."

From the outside, SCI Greene appears to be a quiet place. Pilots who take off from the small airstrip next door to the prison--the only airport in the country to be located so close to a maximum security correctional institute--could be forgiven for thinking they were flying over a prefab industrial warehouse, albeit one with a lot of razor wire atop its fences. Visitors staying at the Comfort Inn, Waynesburg's premium hotel, generally wouldn't know that behind the screen of trees viewed from the lobby is one of the largest supermax prisons in the country. Wal-Mart, planning to open a superstore on land adjacent to the prison in fall 2007, is clearly assuming its shoppers won't be put off by the store's proximity to a prison housing thousands of convicts, including Mumia Abu-Jamal and more than 120 others on death row.

After initial concern from locals in the early 1990s, when the prison plan was floated, that the facility would endanger Waynesburg, interest quickly subsided once it became clear that prisoners weren't going to be routinely escaping into the nearby streets. (So far, none have.) Many locals apparently aren't even aware of its existence--a somewhat surprising fact given that the prison, located in Orwellian fashion on Progress Drive, is by far the largest institution in this town of fewer than 5,000 nonincarcerated people. The prison, says Kinsell, is largely invisible. "After you've driven by it so many times, you don't even give it another thought. It's just another business."

In 1998 a messy prisoner abuse scandal erupted at SCI Greene, with dozens of lawsuits filed by inmates alleging routine beatings by guards within the Restrictive Housing Unit in the years following the prison's opening--a form of hazing for men newly admitted. The town, like so many similar communities faced with prisoner abuse scandals during the 1980s and '90s, greeted the allegations with stony silence. Waynesburg College, a (recently turned) fundamentalist Christian campus, hosted no teach-ins, and the community held no public forums, even after several guards were dismissed and the prison administration was overhauled. "I do not remember people talking about it, no," says County Commissioner Pamela Snyder. "The concerns here are the concerns that truly affect people's daily lives: It's jobs, it's healthcare, it's quality of life." So invisible are prisoners that there seemed to be nothing extraordinary about the tales of violence for violence's sake emanating from SCI Greene.

Waynesburg isn't a right-wing bastion; it is a Democratic town, albeit small-c conservative, part of the hardscrabble coal belt of southwestern Pennsylvania that, in times past, played host to radical unions and rabble-rousing class warriors. Today, however, it is resolutely apolitical--its people more concerned with the annual fair, the annual bet between the mayor and one or another town celebrity as to whether it would rain on Rain Day, and the myriad local beauty pageants, than with prison employees making international names for themselves as vicious bit-players in an increasingly dirty war.

There was nothing particularly unusual about Graner. He was from the nearby community of Uniontown--a small, Main Street town founded in a flourish of independence on July 4, 1776, and today well past its glory days, its sole claim to fame being that George Marshall, military hero and architect of the post-World War II reconstruction of Western Europe, grew up there. After his stint with the Marines, Graner had gotten a job as a guard at SCI Greene shortly after it opened, a job to which he would commute forty minutes from Uniontown each day.

Although after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke several inmates and fellow officers declared that Graner was a casually brutal, hotheaded man who enjoyed hurting his charges, during his time at the prison he wasn't flagged by his superiors as being abnormally violent. When the prison-violence scandal erupted in 1998, Graner was not one of those disciplined. When, subsequently, he was almost fired, it was for disobeying an order to work overtime during a period when he was separating from his wife and needed to see his children during the hours he was being ordered to work. "He wasn't really a violent person, not in the prison, not what I saw," recalled his ex-colleague and union rep James Sergeant, a retired correctional officer and current post commander of the local VFW.

Outside his professional life, however, there were warning signs that Graner was capable of vicious acts. His ex-wife accused him of beating her, stalking her and threatening her with a gun, and she obtained at least three legal orders of protection against him.

But this didn't stand in the way of his being called back to duty and sent off to war. Soon Graner was guarding prisoners again, but this time the prisoners were supposed insurgents and fanatical Muslim terrorists. And the prison, a million miles from home, was a onetime torture center now taken over by the American military and subject to none of the routine oversight processes of US prisons (which, as the SCI Greene scandal showed, aren't always stringent enough to prevent abuses of authority here).

After the Abu Ghraib story broke, as the court-martialing, trials and convictions of Graner progressed, Waynesburg's notoriety, its association-in-shame with the torture scandal by national media outlets, grew. Yet, within Waynesburg itself the scandal remained largely undiscussed, barely on the periphery of consciousness.

Retired correctional officer Sergeant, a Democrat, says his friends, most of them veterans, never brought up Abu Ghraib. "They've been through a hell of a lot worse than what these inmates did. I haven't heard any of them talk about it. I think they--Graner and his compadres--went a little crazy. But I wouldn't doubt they were put up to it either, by whoever those interrogating forces were that wanted them broke down. Personally, I'm not in favor of the war, but I'll do anything I can to support the troops over there. I don't want to see a repetition of Vietnam, where the politicians ran the war and the soldiers took all the heat." As he talked more about Abu Ghraib, however, Sergeant did gradually begin to get angry, though largely for utilitarian reasons, lamenting torture as a strategic blunder rather than a violation of human rights. "People think Graner and his crew did something stupid. But they're thinking, 'What did it hurt?' They're not looking at the long-term implications. There isn't an awareness here of the damage the photos are doing. If someone came through Main Street here and took our politicians and leaders and did things to them, it'd anger people and people'd stand up and fight."

Similar concerns were expressed by Todd Moore, a National Guardsman from the area who headed another prison camp in Iraq, and who visited Abu Ghraib many times. It was, he recalled, a horrible place, "not just for detainees but for the people who work there. You had US soldiers living in cells, they were being mortared every day, had trouble getting food and water in. The morale was terrible." Moore, a compact man with a buzz cut, grasped the impact of Abu Ghraib on world opinion, and he couldn't understand why his neighbors back home didn't care more about it.

"Here, nobody really talks about it, about Graner being from SCI Greene. I don't know why. Maybe nobody reads the paper. Over there [in Iraq], it definitely hurt the operations because you're trying to overcome what those idiots did. But here in Greene County, people aren't tied to the war like they should be," Moore stated. "If you asked ten people what Abu Ghraib was, half wouldn't know. Their attitude maybe is, 'Hey, we're in war and anything goes. We don't care what happens.' [But] the Muslim population of the world can always see those pictures. That's long-term damage. It might take one hundred years, three to four generations, to get that out of their head. I don't know if you ever rectify something like that."

The local sheriff, Richard Ketchem, a kindly man with little patience for abuse of power, was also troubled. "Why would you do something like that?" Ketchem asks bemusedly of the Abu Ghraib rituals. "And then photograph it? It's like those kids who went and killed people and then took pictures of it. It's almost like they're asking to be caught or they're bragging about what they did. It makes me angry. There was a cover-up. It's happened at our jail. It happens in all jails. Officers will cover up for one another."

Most residents, though, didn't seem to feel even pragmatic regret. "It's Greene County," said one of Kinsell's colleagues in the tourism office. "What do we care what they do to I-raqi people?"

"The war in Iraq is not an issue," explained 31-year-old Brian Dunaway, working the cash register at the pro golf shop at the local country club. "Obviously there's mistreatment, but maybe the photos are also taken out of context too. You can read into it whatever you want. Maybe it's them celebrating a victory that they captured some of the Al Qaeda. But I don't get into it much. I can't really say that I've seen 'em [the Abu Ghraib photos] in detail. Just something I've seen on TV. They just kind of flash by--that's about it."

"I'd say the major phrase was 'it was blown out of proportion,'" says a 31-year-old SCI Greene guard who asked that his name not be used, speaking late one night at a local bar. "Basically, all that was done was a couple degrading photos and a little bit of mistreating. They're cutting people's heads off on TV, we're taking pictures of people nude with our thumbs up.... I work in the Restrictive Housing Unit, the hole. These guys throw piss, shit on trays, put sperm in cups. That's a health hazard. But it's not OK to take a photo of a prisoner nude and strapped up? There are worse things going on in the system. The whole war and Graner issue isn't even in our minds anymore."

There was, says Lucy Northrop, co-owner and general manager of one of two local papers, the Observer, "more of a protest about the fact we published some of the pictures on the front page than about the acts themselves."

In Waynesburg, more than a year after the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, there seemed to be a sense of resignation--an acceptance that, in the post-9/11 world, torture (at least of the "lite" variety) would indeed be commonplace and the best approach would be to turn a blind eye, to banish it from the public domain and get on with the business of daily living.

The story of Waynesburg's relationship to Abu Ghraib isn't just about the chance overlap represented in the person of Charles Graner. It's about how ordinary guards--whether at a domestic prison like SCI Greene or a detention center in an overseas war zone--can, as was demonstrated by psychology experiments in the 1960s and '70s, all too easily slide into coarse, violent, even deadly behavior when others are under their absolute control. And it is about the prevalence of a mindset characterized by fear, in which morality takes a back seat to the perceived demands of national security.

"How shocked do you expect us to be, when every day we're subjected to atrocities of every sort: beheadings, hangings in public?" asks Rudy Marisa. Rudy and his wife, Jackie, had hit the local headlines in September 2001, when reporters found out that one of the couple's sons was in the World Trade Center and another in the Pentagon on September 11, and that both survived the terror attacks. Four years on, the couple are still grappling with the enormity of the changes wrought since then. "We're getting used to reading about it [atrocities]. I'm almost getting cynical. But if you're put in a volatile atmosphere, a dangerous atmosphere, I bet we don't even begin to understand the changes that are taking place in our military. You don't remember there's good in the world. Living in this atmosphere day in and day out, anything can happen to your mind."

In war, people do--and accept--things that would be unthinkable in peacetime. In the post-9/11 world, where the terrain of war and the location of the enemy are everywhere and nowhere, the mental transformation Rudy Marisa describes seems to be occurring not just among the military but throughout the population at large. Waynesburg wasn't angry about Abu Ghraib, or, for that matter, about the SCI Greene abuse from the 1990s, because Waynesburg was at war: at war against domestic criminals in the 1990s, at war against dark and shadowy foreign enemies today.

 
 
 

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