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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

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."