Bad Karma

Torturers are planting horrible seeds in their own hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the same is true for nations.

As the Iraqi prison abuse scandal has unfolded, we began to wonder what the spiritual result might be--not just for the prisoners, but also for the soldiers who abused them. Would the soldiers themselves be spiritually degraded by the experience? What might a student of Eastern religion think about that? We asked Kenneth Kraft, a scholar in the new field of "engaged Buddhism" to discuss some of the fallout of the scandal--from a Buddhist point of view. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Let's start at the level of an American soldier in Iraq. I have been struck by the story of the young woman from West Virginia, Lynndie England, who appears in several of the Abu Ghraib pictures. She's 21. Why is her apparent normalcy so disturbing?

The Abu Ghraib photos point to something larger than the specific scenes caught on camera. One of the lessons of this tragedy, from a Buddhist standpoint, is that she is us. That could be my daughter or your niece or someone we might know. It's not as if there were just a few bad apples in a big barrel of good apples. In the frenzy of war, cruelty becomes acceptable behavior. As a nation, we are putting all these good apples - our soldiers - into a very rotten barrel.


Buddhism emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world, and this "interbeing" has no limit. Since I am part of the system that produced this war and these atrocities, then I too share the blame.

What else do the scenes from Abu Ghraib reveal?

They reveal an undeniable aspect of war that we would prefer to keep out of view. The death and mutilation going on in Iraq right now are much worse, and on a much larger scale, than what we're seeing in the photos. One of the oldest teachings in Buddhism is that violence begets violence. If you look at what has happened in the world since 9/11, the level of violence has increased dramatically. Now we are encountering the bounds of "an eye for an eye." As Gandhi said, that method will leave the whole world blind.

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Interview by Deborah Caldwell
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