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Lessons Unnoticed Why German accents bother me
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepp's Commentaries
June 16, 2004

Ever since the images from Abu Ghraib first started coming out, something about them has been eating at me, affecting my day-to-day life.

Certainly, I felt disgust and outrage. But that usually doesn't leave me feeling depressed. This did.

So I've been picking at it for a while, trying to figure out what bothered me so deeply but at the same time seemed so hard to face.

When you read books about the Third Reich, such as Shirer's, or see movies such as Spielberg's "Schindler's List" you become aware of what a nightmarish place Hitler's Germany was. There's the outlandish, over the top rallies, the brutal nationalism and racism. There's the deep corruption, the lack of law. There's the systemized gulag of murder and slavery, the death camps, the work camps and the ghettoes.

But to me, what always made the nightmare real, what put it at a level and on a scale that I could immediately feel in my gut, was the behavior of the guards and the troops. Whether it was a small group of soldiers, rifles carelessly slung over shoulders, humiliating an old Jewish man, or brutal, cold guards promising young women two more weeks of unendurable life in return for some quick unfeeling sex, they represented the face of Nazi Germany.

Whether in Treblinka or Abu Ghraib, in the streets of Paris or the streets of Baghdad, the images are the same: young, smiling, brutal people in uniform abusing others for no other reason than the fact that they can. Psychologists tell us that often they aren't acting out of hatred or even callousness, but simply because they are allowed to. No other reason. No other reason even needed.

When I see the grinning gargoyles in American military uniforms posing gleefully next to humiliated, hurt, tortured people, playing with their sex organs and making them display their anuses to the camera as part of a form of light entertainment, I see humanity at its lowest and most sickening. This is what exists at the bottom of the pit. It is the darkness that lies within each of us, what we build civilizations and religions and philosophies to control, escaped.

Even as I find it pathetic, even contemptible, I understand why people try to deny the images from Abu Ghraib. Some, despite overwhelming evidence, deny it ever happened at all, claiming the photos were faked, or shot in a porn studio. Others say that it represents only some isolated incidents, despite admissions from the Pentagon that investigations into the matters were already widespread before the story ever broke, and that it wasn't limited to Abu Ghraib or even Iraq, but existed in Guantanamo and in prisons throughout America. There are still 3,000 people locked up, without charges and without prospects of trials, in Ashcroft's Gulag. I wonder if they are being tortured, tormented and abused.

Of course they are. Because the guards can. No other reason.

We know, from Ashcroft's testimony before Congress and even as he flatly refuses to turn over memos, that orders to mistreat prisoners came right from the top, from the Oval Office itself. The memo the moral and Christian Ashcroft didn't want Congress to see stated that such abuse was torture only if the inflictor "knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith . . .[A] defendant is guilty of torture only if he acts with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his control."

Senator Joe Biden was withering in his contempt and anger that the administration would write such a thing, but even there, Biden could come up with no better reason to condemn the torture than to point out that it put American troops at risk for retaliation. Perhaps Biden realized that any evocation of morality would be lost on Ashcroft, but there was a television audience of millions who might have liked to have heard a declaration of principle higher than "because we might get caught."

In Germany, after the war, when the madness of Nazi Germany was put out and examined, the Germans did an admirable job of facing the vileness and atrocities that occurred under Hitler. They took many steps to try to ensure that something like the Holocaust would never happen again.

But they never could, and never have, addressed the fact that so many Germans knew what was going on in their country between 1933 and 1945, and simply accepted it. Even today, filmmakers and artists who ask the simple question, "Why did the German people put up with it? Why did they cooperate?" are vigorously suppressed in the name of fighting the sort of censorship the Nazis employed.

The worst thing about Abu Ghraib isn't the grinning goons in American uniforms humiliating their charges; it isn't the religiously insane nutjob who is the nation's top law enforcement officer; it isn't the vacant, vicious little wastrel in the Oval Office. It isn't the people who blindly deny that there was torture, or that it was widespread, or that the leadership knew.

Or that it mattered.

It's the number of people who know in their hearts that the torture was deliberate, calculated, a part of American policy, and has been used widely. It's the people who know this, and don't care.

Some of them even realize that the torture and humiliation and rape don't produce the results given as a rationale. It hasn't slowed down al Qaida. It hasn't scared the Iraqi people into submission. There's no reason to believe that any useful intelligence has been gathered; certainly the notable lack of success of the administration in its unending "war on terror" is proof of that.

They know all this, and they still think "whatever it takes" is justified.

The German people never came to grips with their own role in Hitler's Germany, and that's why, two generations later, I don't quite trust Germans, and why they retain a slight whiff of the charnel house about them. That's why, even though I was born seven years after Hitler killed himself, and the England of my youth was largely rebuilt, I still pull my head back slightly, defensively, whenever I hear a German accent.

That Americans are reacting to Abu Ghraib, in such large numbers, with angry bellicosity and the assertion that it's justified even if there are no results, even as it smears America throughout the world is to me the most profoundly depressing and disheartening thing about the entire Iraqi misadventure.

It isn't the disgraceful guards, or the slouched thugs of the administration, or even the smirking, strutting little clown in the White House that leave me feeling like I'm looking into the abyss of Nazi morality. It's the well-fed American pig whose only response to Abu Ghraib is a grunted, "So what?"

"I know vhat is in the smoke over the work camps. So vhat?"

"Morality? What kind of pansy-ass crap is that?"

And for the first time in my life, I find myself asking myself this question:

Is America still worth it?

Posted: June 17, 2004


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