Robert Chesshyre: America's brutal culture of unseen oppression

Rotten apples only thrive when the barrel is rancid. Prison guards take their tone from the top

Share
Related Topics

Travelling in Costa Rica, I met an ex-pat, all-American American - a craggy, Lee Marvin lookalike, with a black Stetson, cowboy boots and a wide leather belt sporting a death's- head buckle. My immediate reaction was that here was the archetypal red neck, who had probably left the United States to live in central America because he found the US soft on "commies" and wanted a home where a man could be a "man".

We fell into conversation, and I asked why he had left home. To my surprise, he cited American penal policy. He didn't feel comfortable and couldn't sleep nights in a country that locked up so many of its citizens; kept thousands (mainly poor and black) incarcerated for years on death rows; and had mandatory "life means life" sentences handed down to impoverished inner city young men who fell foul of the law three times.

He touched a chord. I had fairly recently lived in the United States, and had equally felt the weight of that unseen oppression. Across the sunny uplands of American middle-class life - little league baseball, barbecues in the yard and "have a nice day" greetings at every checkout - lies a giant shadow. It is not something that concerns many citizens. "We've had enough," said an accountant, when I expressed concern that two million Americans are in jail. "Throw away the key."

This man has never been mugged, his house never burgled, his family never molested, while most Britons I know have been the victims of crime. On all else - race, feminism, gay rights - he is "progressive", and he would describe himself as a liberal. Yet the fact that black teenagers, contemporaries of his own college kids, are locked away in violent, custodial rat-holes for the rest of their lives hardly concerned him.

It came as little surprise to me that the Bush administration hit upon the notion of caging al-Qa'ida suspects in conditions few Americans would tolerate for their dogs. Nor that horrific abuses have taken place in Iraqi jails. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who treats the Geneva Convention much as most motorists treat speed restrictions, must have calculated that - as far as domestic American opinion is concerned - he could act with impunity.

Public complicity is underpinned by a staggering ignorance. Listen to interviews with home town folk in the places from which the Baghdad guards come. "They" - i.e. the wretched Iraqis - deserve all they get - after all, "they" did it to us; "they" blew up the twin towers.

Every article of this sort requires a health warning. I am not in favour of international terrorism; blowing people up and the other grievous sins of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. The organisations' leadership (if and when captured) should stand trial as did senior and directly implicated Nazis. The foot soldiers, however, should be treated as PoWs. If the current US policy had been enforced in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Germans would have been caged as "war criminals".

The maltreatment of Iraqi detainees and Muslim "terrorists" dehumanises not just those who man the cages and take the callous photos, but also the society in whose name the cages were built and the guards recruited. The moral values of governments bear directly on the reputations of all citizens.

In the modern, media-dominated, world, human rights' violations are underpinned by propaganda and spin. Heavy hints - unsupported by evidence - leak out of Camp Delta that even those released with (apparently) no stain on their characters are, in fact, dyed-in-the-wool terrorists. Back in the 1970s in Northern Ireland, I was often taken aside by "information" officers, who created vivid terrorist biographies for people shot or wanted by the police or Army.

Malpractice inevitably takes place in out-of-sight corners. Occasionally, as at Abu Ghraib prison, a bright light shines on what is going on. It is at this point that the authorities invariably throw up their hands and speak of "rotten apples". Rotten apples only thrive when the barrel is rancid. Brutalising functionaries - whether prison guards or soldiers - take their tone from the top. And it is top (or at least higher-up) people who also ought to answer for these crimes

I am not suggesting a direct comparison between genocide in the Balkans and the ill-treatment of Baghdad. But, if Milosevic is the right person to have in the dock over Serb war crimes, then the buck for US misbehaviour in Iraq should stop somewhat further up the chain than a few hillbilly national guardsmen and women.

I know (slightly) a family who lost their daughter on 11 September 2001. Their first desire was that there should be no mindless revenge. The longer the "war" against terrorism goes on, the more essential that becomes. For one thing, it is right; for another it is in the self interest of the United States and her allies. The Guantanamo Bay stockade and the degradations of Abu Ghraib clearly recruit potential "terrorists" in their thousands.

How prisoners are treated - both at home and abroad - to a large extent determines the moral health of a society. Nearly 100 years ago, the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, said: "A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state... mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste