Because I believe this war has a high moral purpose, I, like so many other Americans, was shocked to discover the sickening photos of American military prison guards gratuitously humiliating, and even torturing, Iraqi prisoners of war. Every American should know that we are different from Saddam and his henchmen. So how can we account for these shocking images? Why would any American take delight in the humiliation of others?
To understand why, we must first look at the source of our strength. America is a great country because it is open and free. Liberty, which is the very soul of our nation, has detonated an explosion of human potential unequaled in the long annals of humankind. Capitalism has made it possible to build the richest, most technologically advanced civilization in the history of the world. But for all its blessings, capitalism by definition produces a system of richer and poorer, haves and havenots, winners and losers. It causes some to feel themselves to be at the top of the ladder, while others feel themselves languishing at the bottom. Our society has made some of us extremely visible, while others feel they are barely noticed.
When morality and values, however, are not tied to the social pecking order, when people like Donald Trump, whose claim to fame is not virtue but wealth, are celebrated as kings of the country solely because of their property holdings, what must necessarily follow is an underclass of malcontents who feel that their economic deprivation leaves them bereft of dignity. A culture that creates heroes of those with gold rather than soul is bound to make the lower economic classes feel like they just don't matter.
According to news reports, the soldiers who stand accused of the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison are by and large from extremely poor backgrounds. Take the most infamous of the accused, PFC Lynndie England. According to the Baltimore Sun, she grew up in a trailer down a dirt road behind a bar and a sheep farm in Fort Ashby, West Virginia. Her father was a railroad worker. She was married and divorced before she was 21, and as everyone now knows, she is currently pregnant with the child of another of the accused prison guards, Specialist Charles Graner.
It need not come as a great surprise that someone from the lowest socioeconomic rung-who may have felt that economic plight was personally humiliating-might find pleasure in making someone feel even lower than herself. According to friends and family, England joined the army to "make money and see the world." She thought she would be given a desk job, but suddenly found herself a prison guard in Saddam's former torture chamber. Denied the elevation that comes from travel and exploration, England created for herself an entirely different kind of adventure, namely, the type that comes from putting other people down. When you don't feel like you're big on the inside, you find ways to put down people on the outside. Far from the paradise she sought, England found herself in yet another prison. When those who feel powerless are suddenly thrust into positions of power, they often take pleasure in the humiliation of others over whom they can now lord their authority.
To be sure, I do not know whether this is what motivated Lynndie England. It is not for me to judge her, especially as she is assumed innocent until proven guilty and there are still suggestions that she was pushed to do what she did by military intelligence. I am especially reluctant to impugn the honor of any of our brave men and women in uniform in Iraq until the wheels of military justice grind to an outcome. But I do know that, in general, those who feel lowly often raise themselves higher through the denigration and humiliation of others. An absence of dignity often leads one to strip others of their dignity. Those who feel humiliated often do the humiliating. Those who are in pain frequently inflict pain. And while, as I said earlier, this is not an excuse for their behavior, it does shed light on their actions.
For many years in America, disgruntled and poor white youth in the deep South were made to feel that they weren't that bad off because, impoverished and uneducated as they might be, they at least were not black. While they might not live in the right neighborhoods, at least they had the right color skin. Not having enough money to own a car, they might have to ride the bus. But at least they didn't have to move to the back of the bus. Hitler, as is well known, preyed on the rage of Germany's unemployed and social misfits. Of course, this does not excuse the actions of the downtrodden because an equal argument can be made that their own humiliation should sensitize, rather than inflame, their view of others.