When my seventeen-year-old daughter first saw the photos of tortured and abused Iraqi prisoners in the Times of India, she put the paper down and said, “I’m ashamed to be an American.”

So was I. The delight the American soldiers seemed to take in the humiliation of helpless men was disgraceful and depraved, as well as pathetic: while they evidently believed that this proved their power and might, it proved just the opposite-they were bullies and cowards.

The sexual nature of the abuse reminded me of a scene twenty-five years ago when I was arrested at the construction site of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Of the 1,414 protesters arrested, a small number, myself included, were noncooperators. That meant going limp when asked to leave the site, refusing to give our names or be fingerprinted, and fasting until released from jail.

It was my bad luck to be the first noncooperator to be arrested, and the last person on a bus already filled with cooperators. That meant being separated from my support group for the entire arrest procedure. When we got to the National Guard armory where we were to be processed, everyone else filed off the bus nicely, except for me. I refused to walk.

The policeman who dragged me out of the bus had been up all night and was in no mood for extra effort. He was not cruel, but he was not gentle, either. My jeans were ripped on the way down the bus stairs, and my arms got bruised.

Because there were hundreds of us, we had to keep moving from one spot to another as we waited our turn in the line. Each time the group went forward, I was left behind, only to be dragged ahead by an increasingly irate policeman. When I refused to stand for my photograph, he called another officer for help and the two of them yanked me to my feet and slammed me against a wall, then pulled my hair to hold my head back for the photo.

I was in tears at that point, but worse was to come. At the fingerprinting table to which I was next dragged, I again said I wouldn’t cooperate. One policeman pulled me to stand in such a way that my T-shirt went up around my neck while the other one painfully rolled my fingers in the ink and pressed them onto the form. A line of young National Guardsmen leaning against a wall watched me, exposed and humiliated, and laughed.

It was a mild incident, certainly nothing close to torture. But it indicated the prevailing values of the police and the National Guardsmen and the inability of most people within the system to step outside of it and see a prisoner as a person.

This is part of police and military training, and comes as no surprise. Because it was peace time, and because the prisoners at Seabrook were mostly white, middle-class, educated kids, the treatment I got was actually quite lenient. Imagine if I had been a street-smart black teenager.

War is another matter altogether. Although it does not figure in conventional history books, war crimes, often against civilians and particularly targeted at women, are commonplace. Conquering armies the world over mark their territory through rape, looting, and burning. Everyone knows it, but at least it is seen as criminal. In this particular war, though, the rules governing acceptable behavior seem to have been crafted in the deepest recesses of hell. And while condemnation of the reported torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners is almost universal, even in the United States, the fact is that it was almost inevitable.

Since 9/11, a culture of intolerance in the United States has been systematically encouraged and sustained. (My husband, who is brown-skinned and bearded, now refuses to travel to the United States-he has heard too many stories from similar-looking friends of the harassment encountered in American airports.) From the racial profiling of air travelers to the suspension of normal criminal-justice procedures for prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, every effort has been made to deny the humanity of anyone even vaguely considered a threat to American interests.

The soldiers who were sent to Iraq in the latest phase of the “war against terror” have lived in the United States since September 11 and, along with everyone else, have listened to the increasingly strident rants of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld about the need to “destroy” those who oppose the United States in Iraq and other parts of the world. These young men and women have heard about the enemies of the American way of life busy planning mass-destruction attacks on the country, who must be stopped before it is too late. They have been part of the wide-scale indoctrination, the paranoia, the fear-just like everyone else.

Unlike their fellow citizens at home, though, these young recruits have been given a chance to do something about it. One can only imagine what sort of things they must have been told in basic training, or how many half-truths they heard about Arab terrorists, how many twisted versions they were given of Iraqi plans to take over America. Training is everything.

A few months ago, I was traveling to Delhi by railway with a close friend who is a pediatric surgeon. Midway through the journey, someone outside hurled a large rock through a window, shattering the glass and injuring several passengers. This particular route went through an area where bandit attacks on trains and buses are not uncommon, and people reacted with screams and panic, expecting worse to follow.

My friend was the picture of calm, however. He stood up quietly and after instructing people to close their curtains so as not to present an easy target, he quickly surveyed the compartment to assess who was most badly injured and whom he should assist first. His easy air of authority reassured those around him, and gradually the atmosphere became less frenzied.

After he had bandaged the man who had been hit by the rock, examined those who had been sprayed with bits of glass, and sat down again beside me, I asked how he had stayed so calm. He thought for a moment and said, “It’s just training, I guess. Part of being a surgeon. You learn to stay focused on what needs to be done.”

Just training. My Seabrook story doesn’t end with the fingerprinting episode. After they had gotten my prints, I was dragged to another area to wait my turn to be hauled in front of a judge. I was by now a wreck, trembling uncontrollably and terrified at the thought of those two policemen coming to get me again. When they did in fact move toward me, something amazing happened. A very young, very skinny National Guardsman darted across the room and reached me just seconds ahead of them. Before they had a chance to react, and in front of all his friends-the same ones who had been laughing minutes before-he scooped me up in his arms like a baby, carried me into the courtroom, and deposited me gently into a chair. “You take care of yourself now,” he said fiercely. As he turned to go, I saw that his eyes were full of tears.

I never found out who he was, but I am willing to bet that he had loving parents who taught him from childhood all the true, right things: that everyone has feelings, that bullies are cowards, that you have to stand up for what you believe. Training is everything.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: View Contents
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