Oct 5, 2011

Revisiting Abu Ghraib. This time in the class room.

This semester I'm honored to be teaching in Sweet Briar College's new Y:1 pilot program, a first-year seminar program that introduces students to the academic rigor we expect, while also helping them to become more digitally sophisticated. All of the students receive iPad2s for participating in the program, which they then must use to complete many of the course assignments.

I'm teaching a course titled "9/11 and the 'New Normal' Decade" with Spencer Bakich, a Professor of International Relations. He's a political scientist by training and I'm trained as a fiction writer, though my first book, A Good War is Hard to Find, (and second, which I'm finishing up now) are both nonfiction. So we both bring very different approaches to the table.

The theme for the Y:1 program is "Testing Tolerance," and so all four sections of the first-year seminar engage with it in some way or another. There's a course on the issue of Muslim immigration in Europe, Empire, and a course on the development of modern science, which covers a many of the foundational discoveries by Middle Eastern thinkers.

In order to drive home some of the larger themes that cut across all four sections of the seminar, we have programmed a film series. Tonight we will be showing Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. I will introduce the film and lead discussion afterward.

It's been five years since I published my book on Abu Ghraib, and so returning to the incident and the issues that it raised (and still raises), has been surprisingly unsettling. Re-watching Morris' film last night, I felt a familiar outrage creeping in, a feeling that is very difficult to control. I'm going to do my best this evening to present the case of Abu Ghraib in as objective a light as possible, but I make no promises. It's even clearer to me now, eight years after the incidents took place, that the abuses inflicted by military police and interrogators was not the work of a "few bad apples," but driven by policy authorized by the highest levels of government.

It is also clearer to me now that close scrutiny of the motives for taking the hundreds of photographs which fueled the scandal are, as Susan Sontag wrote in her essay "Regarding the Torture of Others," a reflection of American cultural values that exist just beneath our otherwise benevolent surface. This is not to say that America and Americans are evil, but it is to say--and Morris' film reveals this over and over--that America's moral courage has been degraded.