As the sun sets rapidly on the Bush Administration there is a growing anxiety that it will not be held fully accountable for its crimes — particularly torture. In one instance, the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are now at serious risk of being resigned to the dustbin of infamy, wholly tagged to a few “bad apples” and in isolation to any larger policy of coercive tactics, including torture, approved and pursued by the White House, Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense.
It is with that frustration that writers like Mark Benjamin of Salon are attempting to yank our attention back to Abu Ghraib and the fact that only low-level tools of the Army were ever prosecuted for the systematic torture and humiliation of the Iraqi prisoners there. Even after mounting evidence, including damning White House and DoD memos approving methods such as waterboarding, claims from high-ranking officers like disgraced Gen. Janice Karpinski that her men and women had direction from higher up the food chain, and the extensive details provided by the Taguba Report, which among other things, often contradicted the administration’s claims about what it knew and when (Major Gen. Antonio Taguba was forced to retire after his 2004 report surfaced), the truth seems more elusive than ever.
So while I understand the inspiration behind Benjamin’s latest, “Sympathy for Charles Graner,” I don’t see how a semi-white wash of the guy with the camera is going to advance the cause. Sure, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of DoD, White House and CIA lawyers are running around with their livelihoods and plump speaking fees ahead of them while Graner rots in jail, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong there.
Benjamin travels to Graner’s family home in western Pennsylvania to talk to his parents, who describe Graner’s treatment at Fort Leavenworth — where he has been sentenced for ten years on charges of conspiracy to maltreat detainees, failing to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty, and maltreatment, as well as charges of assault, indecency and dereliction of duty — as “terrible.” His father goes so far as to say he shouldn’t be in prison.
But Benjamin’s story skips over a few things about this Persian Gulf War vet, former corrections officer and amateur photog. He says that Graner is the only person involved in Abu Ghraib still behind bars, and that “Lynndie England is not in jail.” He fails to mention that England, the 21-year-old pregnant lover of the 36-year-old Graner at the time of the scandal, did more than a year in prison and had his baby behind bars.
He also fails to mention that Graner had a history of abuse. His ex-wife and mother of his two young daughters (they are pictured, lovingly with Graner in the Salon spread) took out a restraining order on him in 1997 after he allegedly threatened to kill her and dragged her across the floor by her hair. As a correction officer he was accused by inmates in two separate incidents of physical abuse while shouting racial epithets and in one case, putting a razor blade in an inmate’s mashed potatoes.
He has been called the “ringleader,” of the activities among the 372nd Military Police Company, orchestrating not only the abuse and sick photography of the Iraqi prisoners seared upon our brains, but of the sexual antics among members of the company, particularly England. She recalled in a prison interview with Tara McKelvey of Marie Claire how she fell in with Graner’s weird sexual fetishes long before they were sent to Iraq together. In Iraq, he took pictures of everything, with one particular signature: the “thumbs up” sign.
In a supply room, Graner takes a shot of England performing oral sex. England adds a flourish for the photos: a thumbs-up sign. In another photo, England is standing near a detainee, Hayder Sabbar Abd, a 34-year-old taxi driver, as he is being made to simulate masturbation. Again, she gives a thumbs-up.
Why did she let Graner take all those pictures? Wasn’t she afraid he’d show them to people? “I didn’t want him to take the pictures,” England tells me. “But he took pictures of everything. He kept a camera in his cargo pocket. He was always taking his camera out. Sometimes he took the pictures for himself. Sometimes he took them for documentation. (snip)
England remembers one detainee, “Gus.” (The prisoner’s real name has not been released.) “He didn’t like Americans,” she says. Gus was a “small man weighing approximately 100 pounds,” according to government documents. He was mentally ill; he had smeared his own feces on his body and threatened to kill some of the guards. One autumn night, Graner went into his cell with a leash (a “tie-down strap,” according to the documents). Gus was submissive. Graner put the strap around his neck, led him out of the cell, and handed the strap to England. Then he took a picture — and sent the jpeg to his family in Pennsylvania.
“Look what I made Lynndie do,” Graner wrote in the email.
Another prisoner, Hussein Mohssein Mata Al-Zayiadi, testified he was beaten and forced on top of a human pyramid. The abuse took place at night and into the early morning hours of November 8, 2003, England’s 21st birthday.
Who came up with the idea? “It wasn’t us, it was his daddy,” England says, nodding at Carter, who’s sitting next to her. She reaches over and kisses him on the forehead, while he grapples with a plastic airplane and then shoves it across the table.
Where did Graner get the idea? “He said it was because it was a narrow corridor, and it would be better to put them all together and that it would keep them busy. He didn’t tell us what he was going to do before he did it. He just told us as we were doing it.”
Taking a look, again, at all of the photos Graner so generously supplied for us, it is hard to see this man as anything but deserving of his imprisonment. Even he said to Benjamin in a letter from prison, “Karma really is a son of a bitch!”
I don’t think sugarcoating this son of a bitch will get us anywhere nearer to the truth (and I thank Salon for keeping up the fight). Consequently, this story has many truths, one of them being that those who blindly “follow orders” have earned their place in the hall of shame for a reason. They may be “scapegoats” but in the case of Iraq, they were pliant tools for the evisceration of our moral authority. We should never forget that.