What was just as shocking as the images of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib was their lack of political impact. George Bush was re-elected. No one in higher office was held accountable. And by all accounts, torture persists in the U.S. military and the C.I.A., not to mention U.S.-operated "rendition" practices that send alleged enemies of the state to be tortured in Romania, Poland, Egypt and elsewhere. If more Americans were familiar with torture, would they allow such dehumanizing and un-American actions to be performed in their name?
Two new documentaries about Abu Ghraib -- Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's The Prisoner; or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair -- recently hit DVD shelves, and they should be required viewing for all American citizens.
As I recently wrote in Utne Reader ("The Cost of Cruelty"), the films are valuable companion pieces to understanding the context and consequences of U.S. torture. Ghosts provides a chilling, exhaustive account of moral turpitude and misguided authority. Kennedy doesn't only reveal the photos, but those inside the photos, talking about their actions. M.P. Sabrina Harman, the woman who famously gave a thumbs-up in one of the pictures, now looks like a stunned animal as she talks about how the stacking of human beings came to be. And we hear one victim describe life at Abu Ghraib: "We listened as his soul cracked," read the subtitles of one testimony of torture.
Likewise, The Prisoner offers a more intimate glimpse into the life of Abu Ghraib's victims -- innocent Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas recounts his disturbing nine months in U.S. custody, where he was accused of plotting to assassinate Tony Blair. To match the ludicrous charge, the filmmakers use comic-book-like animations to illustrate Abbas' ordeal. But, of course, nothing about his ordeal is remotely funny.
These stories from Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. military's unlawful and unjust interrogation tactics are only beginning to come out in full force, offering a valuable counterpoint to the White House's "few bad apples" rationalizations. As Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney's upcoming documentary about the widespread use of torture in the U.S. military, also shows, the psychological horrors of sexual humiliation and sense deprivation go against the basic tenets of the Geneva Convention, and whatever John Yoo or Donald Rumsfeld says about them, they are still illegal torture -- perhaps the worst kind. (Here's a YouTube clip from 24 showing the nefarious wonders of 'sense dep.')
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is hard at work on his own Abu Ghraib/Iraq War doc, S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, which is supposed to come out in time to make an impact on the 2008 elections. It would be about time. If torture doesn't work, eliciting wrongful confessions and going against universally recognized principles of human rights, why do 1/3 of American troops still support torture in Iraq, as last month's study on "Battlefield Ethics" by the U.S. Army Medical Command shows? Education is needed, both among the American people and its generals. A few good documentaries may not be enough to change policy, but at least they're a start.