An illegal and immoral war, betrayed by images that reveal our racism

That was the byline of an article that appeared in the respected UK newspaper The Independent, by Robert Fisk, on May 7, 2004.34 The reference was to the infamous photographs of Abu Ghraib. Apparently, the goal of the US forces in photograph- ing sexual humiliation was to blackmail Iraqi victims into becoming informants against the insurgency, McFate (2005) argues. It has been asserted that what occurred at Abu Ghraib was the result of a few ‘bad apples’, but there is ample evidence to sug- gest a more deliberate strategy in accord with Fisk’s concerns. For instance, in Abu Ghraib, the ‘War on Terror’ was used to legitimate and sanction extreme measures, in which the individuality of inmates was removed with their clothing and with the degradation of their dignity through brutality, in a regime in which gratuitous vio- lence became routinized. The greater good of the War on Terror could be used to justify lesser evils, as if avoiding a bigger harm with a lesser one were not totally irrational (and immoral) and destructive of whatever moral ground its project might be based on.

Theoretically, the case of Abu Ghraib is a clear example of a total institution. It is spatially circumscribed and heavily guarded; people are confined against their will without legal redress; they are subject to bizarre and unusual practices over which they have no control and which are designed to dehumanize and render them power- less. They are institutionalized in terms of being stripped of markers of identity, quite literally stripped in some cases. The organization of Abu Ghraib is precisely the kind of organization that one would expect leading practitioners of organization studies to be engaged with, although there is little evidence that this is the case.

Greenberg and Dratel (2005) have collected and published The torture papers: the road to Abu Ghraib, in which they establish that there was a systematic attempt by the US government to prepare the way for torture techniques and coercive interro- gation practices, forbidden under international law, with the express intent of evad- ing legal punishment in the aftermath of any discovery of these practices and policies. A systematic decision was made to alter the rules governing the use of methods of coercion and torture that lay outside of accepted legal norms. Not only did the lawyers and policy makers knowingly overstep legal doctrine, but they also did so against the advice of the Secretary of State and the Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State. Thus, the decision to use the opportunities afforded by Abu Ghraib as a total institution to exceed the rights accorded under law was deliberate. The torture of prisoners became standard practice, as the internationally accepted tenets of the Geneva Convention were bypassed and ignored. What made it possi- ble to do this were the opportunities for total institutional control and isolation afforded by the prison. What should be evident is that Abu Ghraib represents a gross offense to the standards of a civil society normally espoused by people who deem themselves the upholders of liberal values that emerge from the post-Enlightenment stress on the importance of individual human rights. It should be clear that we are not equating the abuses of Abu Ghraib with the atrocities of Auschwitz but are drawing an organizational analogy. It is the total institutional qualities of the two settings, the death camp and the interrogation camp, which make their respective atrocities possible. In both cases some of the same organizational processes render extreme obedience to power not only thinkable but also doable.

Not only is Abu Ghraib an example of a total institution that stands at the heart of darkness of US imperial power, it is also a chilling example of what can happen when those civil rights that Weber saw as essential to rational-legal bureaucracy are trounced. Of course, we understand the context in which the institution is inscribed, but what strength do moral claims to a superior form of life have when they are so contradicted by everyday practice?

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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