Beliefnet
From the 2004 commencement speech by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling "Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America," at Barnard College.

I had another speech prepared for today--all about the cost of college and how the doors to higher education are closing to all but the wealthy. It was a good speech--lots of laugh lines--but two weeks ago something came along that wiped the smile right off my face. You know, you saw them too--the photographs of American soldiers sadistically humiliating and abusing detainees in Iraq.

These photos turned my stomach--yours too, I'm sure. But they did something else to me: they broke my heart. I had no illusions about the United States mission in Iraq, but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women.

There was the photo of Specialist Sabrina Harman smiling an impish little smile and giving the thumbs sign from behind a pile of naked Iraqi men--as if to say, "Hi mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib!"

We've gone from the banality of evil... to the cuteness of evil.

There was the photo of Private First Class Lynndie England dragging a naked Iraqi man on a leash. She's cute too, in those cool cammy pants and high boots. He's grimacing in pain. If you were doing PR for Al Qaeda, you couldn't have staged a better picture to galvanize misogynist Islamic fundamentalists around the world.

And never underestimate the misogyny of the real enemy, which was never the Iraqis; it was and should be the Al Qaeda-type fundamentalist extremists: Two weeks ago in eastern Afghanistan, suspected Taliban members (I thought we had defeated them, but never mind) ... poisoned three little girls for the crime of going to school. That seems to be the attitude in that camp: In the case of women, better dead than well-read.

But here in these photos from Abu Ghraib, you have every Islamic fundamentalist stereotype of Western culture--all nicely arranged in one hideous image--imperial arrogance, sexual depravity ... and gender equality.

Now we don't know whether women were encouraged to partcipate. All we know is they didn't say no. Of the seven U.S. soldiers now charged with the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, three are women: Harman, England and Megan Ambuhl.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked.

Certainly not about the existence of abuse. Reports of this and similar abuse have been leaking out of Guantanamo and immigrant detention centers in NYC for over a year. We know, if we've been paying attention, that similar kinds of abuse, including sexual humiliation, are not unusual in our own vast U.S. prison system.

We know too, that good people can do terrible things under the right circumstances. This is what psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments in the 1960s. Sabrina and Lynndie are not congenitally evil people. They are working class women who wanted to go to college and knew the military as the quickest way in that direction. Once they got in, they wanted to fit in.

And I shouldn't be surprised either because I never believed that women are innately less aggressive than men. I have argued this repeatedly--once with the famously macho anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. When he kept insisting that women are just too nice and incapable of combat, I answered him the best way I could: I asked him if he wanted to step outside...

I have supported full opportunity for women within the military, in part because--with rising tuition--it's one of the few options around for low-income young people.

I opposed the first Gulf War in 1991, but at the same time I was proud of our servicewomen and delighted that their presence irked their Saudi hosts.

Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would eventually change the military, making it more respectful of other people and their cultures, more capable of genuine peace keeping.

That's what I thought, but I don't think that any more.

A lot of things died with those photos.

The last moral justification for the war with Iraq died with those photos. First the justification was the supposed weapons of mass destruction. Then it was the supposed links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden--those links were never found either. So the final justification was that we had removed an evil dictator who tortured his own people. As recently as April 30, George Bush exulted that the torture chambers of Iraq were no longer operating.

Well, it turns out they were just operating under different management. We didn't displace Saddam Hussein; we replaced him.

And when you throw in the similar abuses in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, in immigrant detention centers and US prisons, you see that we have created a spreading regime of torture--an empire of pain.

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