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The Crux Project Archives: Government/Politics


Abu Ghraib, Flannery O'Connor, and the problem of American innocence

by David Griffith

Now that the United States has transferred partial sovereignty to the Iraqi people, the question remains: what to make of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and its disturbing images of torture and humiliation?

First, the basics: was it a matter of a few American troops, a few "bad apples," acting on their own, or was the abuse more widespread, part of a systematic disregard for human rights communicated from the highest levels of government?

Recently released CIA, Pentagon, and Justice Department memos condoning low-grade torture in the war against terrorism appear to confirm the latter. But there were also early hints in the digital photos and videos of the prison abuse. Cropped, the pictures suggest the work of only a handful of reservists. Uncropped, they show more soldiers, some identified as military intelligence officers, standing around, a few watching, others preoccupied with the most mundane activities. One picture reveals a man cleaning his fingernails.

But the images are more than just evidence. They're icons, Rorschachs used by commentators to justify, criticize, or deconstruct the war, and the United States.

Many of the pictures do resemble grotesque political cartoons—human pyramids: a prisoner in a cruciform pose atop a box with red wires curling away from his fingers; prisoners pantomiming sexual acts; prisoners cowering before attack dogs. They're impossible caricatures, their effects exaggerated because removed from the larger, more complicated context of the war. They are images even the most zealous anti-war cartoonist would feel uneasy imagining, let alone sketching. And there are hundreds of unreleased photos said to be much worse, scenes of rape and even murder.

Some commentators—mostly conservatives, such as Robert Knight of The Culture and Family Institute, but even left-wing social critic Susan Sontag—cited our society's addiction to hard-core pornography to explain the scandal. Why else would the abuse have included so much nudity, sex, sadomasochism—and exhibitionism―in the form of extensive photo and video documentation? In their view, the prison was an outpost of our debased, porn-soaked culture. Consider two of the main protagonists in this spectacle: Army Corporal Charles Graner, Jr.—an alleged wife beater once divorced and now, according to some sources, engaged to the pregnant twenty-one-year-old Army Pfc. Lynndie England, seen giving exuberant thumbs-up gestures while standing in front of naked, hooded prisoners, and other times pointing directly to the genitals of prisoners. Some of the unreleased photos are said to show England having sex with other MPs.

Some had predicted that the actions of Graner, England, and the rest would be explained away by a military psychiatrist. A picture would be painted in the courtroom: the pressures of guarding so many prisoners; the nightly mortar attacks; Graner's broken marriage; his abusive, domineering personality; the pixie-ish, twenty-one-year-old naïf, England, from Nowheresville, West Virginia who joined the reserves to fund her dreams of becoming a meteorologist. After all, psychological experiments have proved that anyone, given the right conditions, can become a torturer, right? In this scenario, the abuse is reduced to a problem of abnormal psychology.

But moral and psychological interpretations of the scandal—usually in the service of ideology—fall short. There's another more profound, tragic, spiritual sense in which to understand the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib, a view informed by a unique, literary understanding of innocence, sin, and grace.

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor would have considered the images of the prison scandal grotesque, but not in what she called "the pejorative sense"—of just plain images of ugliness and ignorance. For O'Connor—whose characters are some of the most memorable grotesqueries in American literature—the grotesque makes visible hidden "discrepancies" between character and belief. Such images "connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye."

Take Cpl. Graner, for example. His pick-up truck, still parked in the driveway of his Uniontown, Pennsylvania home at the time of the incident, bears a license plate with the word "Jesus" and a picture of a cross. There is also a smooth stone in, appropriately enough, a "weed-choked" flower bed in front of his house, painted with a verse from the Bible: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you."

This stone was mentioned in most of the early newspaper coverage about Abu Ghraib, treated as a bit of profound irony, the kind of coincidence that newspaper reporters salivate over. How could a man with this bit of scripture displayed prominently in his "postage-stamp" of a front yard, as one local Pittsburgh news weekly described it, commit such atrocious acts? It's an irony the secular press isn't equipped to engage at any depth.

Such ironies were the stuff of O'Connor's stories. Her characters think of themselves as "good people," but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise. Their pride blinds them to their own flaws, and only violence—usually from an unlikely source—opens their eyes, and offers them a chance at redemption.

For O'Connor, her native American South was the perfect landscape against which to paint her grotesque figures. But to Catholics in the 1950's O'Connor's fascination with bizarre characters from the nation's most Protestant region was unsettling. She addressed their "certain impatience" with her work in 1963 at a speaking engagement at Georgetown University, in a speech titled "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South":

The American Catholic trusts the fictional imagination about as little as he trusts anything. Before it's well on its feet, he's busy looking for heresy in it. The Catholic press is constantly broken out in a rash of articles on the failure of the Catholic novelist. The Catholic novelist is failing to reflect the virtue of hope, failing to show the Church's interest in social justice, failing to show life as positive good, failing to portray our beliefs in a light that will make them desirable to others.

O'Connor accounts for this by accusing the Catholic reader of being "more Manichaen than the Church permits . . . by separating nature from grace."

"Manichaeism"—or Dualism—was a third-century religion inspired by Persian, Mani. It claimed the universe was governed by two eternal, separate—and equal—forces: Good and Evil. Dualism has a certain attraction for Christians. In fact, in his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, "I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market." But, Lewis continued, "It has a catch to it." Lewis, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, does a good job of refuting Dualism, and showing why Christianity is not dualistic, that the one eternal principle in Christianity―God―is good, that everything God made is good, and that evil is merely a perversion of the good:

And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers that enable evil to carry on are power given to it by goodness. All the things which enable a man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things—resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.

How to account for evil, then? Lewis continues: "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right." Evil is the pursuit of good things—pleasure, money, power, etc.―"by the wrong method."

That's O'Connor territory. Her stories reveal the hidden evil residing in the human heart, the pursuit of good that masks a secret pride.

For O'Connor, God's providence was realized not despite our sins, but through them. Removing sin from life—or fiction—meant essentially cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace. Life—or literature—becomes either sentimental or obscene, and while "preferring the former, and being more of an authority on the latter," the Catholic reader fails to see their similarity. "He forgets," she continues, that

sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence and that innocence whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite . . . Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

The opposite of innocence? Abu Ghraib, maybe? When we consider the United States, was there ever a country more naively, optimistically moral? But by separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil. Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, American surface?

Will Americans see the images of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib as O'Connor would, as evidence of the spiritual struggle within all human beings—within us—or as a deviant fantasy dreamed up by desperate characters? What is the cost of treating these events as the result of abnormal psychology? At what cost do we demand to see ourselves as redeemers—the judgers of Good and Evil? •

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