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Philip Gourevitch Challenges Assumptions about American Torture


Philip Gourevitch cautions Americans not to dissociate themselves from the U.S. soldiers who tortured at Abu Ghraib.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

All you need to know about how American soldiers ended up torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison can be found in the television show 24.

That, Philip Gourevitch, said on Thursday, Sept. 26, is where one can most vividly see American revenge fantasies colliding with ideals of freedom.

“That show basically says it’s illegal to torture; it’s terrible to torture. But [the character played by Kiefer Sutherland]tortured, and he’s an American hero,” Gourevitch told an audience of nearly 120 Fordham students at the McGinley Ballroom.

The noted editor and writer was at Rose Hill to discuss Standard Operating Procedure(Penguin Press, 2008), his book based on interviews with soldiers who appeared in photographs showing torture at Abu Ghraib in 2004.

Far from being a couple of “bad apples,” he explained in detail how the soldiers were part of a larger, misguided agenda to rid the world of terrorists, even if it meant abandoning ideals that make the United States worth fighting for in the first place.

“We, in the name of ending torture, of ending tyranny, of bringing freedom and liberation to a country, reactivated Iraq’s torture chambers,” he said.

Standard Operating Procedure addresses what Gourevitch calls false stories that Americans tell about themselves. For example, the war on terror began with the notion that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were so evil, the United States would have to jettison the Geneva Conventions to fight them.

He noted that this idea went against U.S. history, including George Washington’s decision to treat British prisoners humanely even when British forces did not reciprocate.

To get around the restrictions imposed by the Conventions, the Bush Administration moved on May 1, 2003 to declare that major combat operations in Iraq had come to an end, even though it was clear more fighting was to come.

The idea, Gourevitch said, was to change the conflict from one in which people captured by the American military were called prisoners of war to another in which they were called detainees.

The Geneva Conventions mandate that a nation must treat prisoners of war humanely, but may be rougher with spies and saboteurs, a label which Gourevitch said the administration simply affixed to everyone they arrested after May 1.

The decision to exploit this loophole is one of the reasons why American soldiers were told to torture Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

“Inside that speech was a kind of legal pivot from one kind of war to another kind of war—a kind of war that we never quite admitted openly was the new structure, but which was immediately seen as being in effect,” he said.

The particulars of Abu Ghraib—poorly educated soldiers, constant attacks from insurgents and shoddy intelligence that misidentified innocent Iraqis as master terrorists—practically guaranteed that something would go horribly wrong, he continued.

Worse yet, Gourevitch noted that most Americans tell themselves they would never drag naked men around on dog leashes—a misguided and dangerous assumption.

“In the case of Abu Ghraib, we collectively vilified all the people who appeared in the photographs. Even if we knew that these things seemed to be somehow connected to American policy, the idea was, ‘Those guys were scum, and I would never do that,’” he said.

“Yet the history of the world tells us that the great mass of people do these things, that the people who actually behave well when the pressure comes down are comparatively few.”

Gourevitch was sponsored by the American Age Lecture Series, American Studies Program, Center on Religion and Culture, deans of Fordham College at Rose Hill and Lincoln Center; Departments of Communication and Media Studies, History, and English; and the Programs in Literary Studies, Peace and Justice Studies and Women’s Studies.

Gourevitch Dwells on Big Picture at Panel

Hours before he spoke with students on the Rose Hill campus, Philip Gourevitch entertained thoughts and questions from Fordham faculty at McNally Amphitheatre.

The panelists dwelled mostly on Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin Press, 2008) in their questions of Gourevitch, who said that his work focuses on stories that Americans tell themselves about who they are and how they live and interact with the rest of the world.

“There are a lot of conventional packagings and fictions about big dramatic political stories,” he said. “They tend to be things that—in order to get through them and get past them—we slot away. We find a little niche for them, and we tell ourselves a fiction about them.”

Abu Ghraib falls into that category because, as with the Rwandan genocides of 1994, it was an episode that Americans deemed to be beneath them. But collectively, Americans are really not all that virtuous, Gourevitch said. He cautioned against everyday Americas assuming that they would not also allow the abuse to happen if caught in the same situation.

“My big idea would be to try to avoid as much as possible situations where the maximum number of people are tested, because we don’t acquit ourselves well,” he said.

Included on the panel were: Robin Andersen, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies and director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program; Tom Deluca, Ph.D. professor of political science; and Margaret Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.


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