Abu Ghraib and the Nature of the State

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

The recent revelations of serious misbehavior on the part of American personnel manning the Abu Ghraib prison have prompted a wide range of reactions. Some, such as Rush Limbaugh’s equating the abuses to a “fraternity prank,” have served chiefly to place the person forwarding them beyond the scope of civilized discourse. (Even some of the participants in the National Review Online blog, which is one of the most hawkish forums around, were disturbed by Rush’s remarks.)

Aside from such outlandish views, my sense – without having performed any sort of systematic survey, I admit – is that the reaction of most Americans can be placed into one of three main currents of opinion. The first of them is characterized by President Bush’s statement that, while the prison photos show actions that are inexcusable, the root of the problem is simply “a few bad apples” in the US military. That handful of soldiers will be punished – therefore, the problem has been addressed and the subject should be dropped, and will be dropped by everyone except the leftists determined to undermine the morale of our troops and the determination of the American public.

I think the above view is untenable, adopted from either navet or political expediency. The military is not a place abounding in privacy or opportunities to “do one’s own thing.” Even if only seven Americans at Abu Ghraib directly took part in the abuse of prisoners, it still would be nearly inevitable that almost all of the personnel at the site would have become aware of it. I don’t know enough details about what occurred to decide if higher-ranking individuals explicitly ordered the grunts to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation (as contended by Sy Hersh, among others), implicitly encouraged them to do so with a “wink and a nudge,” or merely chose to tolerate the abuses. But it is just not believable that only seven American soldiers had any idea of what was going on.

Often accompanying the “few bad apples” explanation, appearing in both administration statements and pundits’ commentary, is the notion that the Abu Ghraib crimes should not be taken too seriously because other governments have presided over even worse violations of prisoners’ rights. While it is true that the ugliness we have seen revealed from Abu Ghraib pales next to the horrors of the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag, treating it as a minor faux pas based on such comparisons plumbs the depths of moral relativism, as sagely noted by Arthur Silber.

A second broad strain of reaction contends that the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib are just the sort of thing we should expect from Americans. Interestingly, it appears in both a left-wing and a right-wing variety. From the left, we can find voices claiming that, after all, American society is consumed by greed, steered by the whims of heartless capitalists, permeated by racism and jingoism, and imperialist to the core. We should expect that the peons serving in the military of such a power will stomp their jackboots into the face of sub-human foreigners if given half a chance. From the right, others shout that modern America is a society consumed by lust and awash in pornography, its traditional values battered by feminists, homosexuals, and perverts of all stripes. Of course, they say, today’s American soldiers will indulge in sadomasochistic orgies if given half a chance.

But I don’t believe that the wellspring of the Abu Ghraib crimes was some uniquely American moral flaw. I have met, worked with, and lived with many people from many countries during my life. Nothing I have experienced has led me to believe that any nation has any special propensity to produce an extraordinary proportion of good or evil people. If I see Americans behaving in an especially repugnant fashion, I look to the circumstances in which they have found themselves, rather than to some uniquely “American” sort of evil.

Attempting to explain how a person’s actions reflect his situation, as he perceives it to be, in no way implies that his evil deeds should be excused because he was faced with difficult circumstances. There are individuals who, even in the most torturous situation imaginable, will resist the urge to do wrong, just as there are individuals who will succumb to a mere whiff of temptation. Nevertheless, an analysis of various situations into typical categories, based on the presence or absence of certain factors deemed to be especially salient, may help to explain why people in general are more likely to behave badly in some situations than they are in others.

And, of course, the culture of a specific wrongdoer might strongly influence the particular form in which his wrongdoing appears. Since that is so, it is possible that proponents of the “America is to blame” view might be pointing to cultural factors helping to shape that form, even while being mistaken in regarding them as the “cause” of Abu Ghraib.

But let’s move on to the last grouping of reactions composing my tripartite division, characterized by views that, on the whole, I find more thoughtful and nuanced than the views typifying the other two groups. These folk acknowledge that the crimes committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib were not merely a matter of some young soldiers, under stress and far from home, “blowing off some steam.” They admit that the abuses could not have occurred without those in command being guilty, at the very least, of egregious neglect of their fundamental responsibilities. They are even willing to entertain the notion that a pervasive disregard for the rights of suspected terrorists, emanating from the very top of our current administration, led low-level personnel to believe that abusing such suspects was approved and expected.

Their proposed remedy, besides appropriate punishment for anyone proven to bear significant responsibility for the crimes that took place at Abu Ghraib, is some serious “soul searching” on the part of the American military, policy makers, and citizens in general. Somehow, as a nation, we appear to have stumbled into a moral swamp. Perhaps if we can find our proper course again, we can avoid such barbarism in the future.

While the “soul searchers” are engaging the revelations from Abu Ghraib more intelligently than the people who have adopted either of the other two viewpoints described above, I contend that they are not addressing a fundamental aspect of the abuses, namely, the institutional setting in which they took place. The criminals working at that prison were there at the behest of a State. I contend that the essential nature of the State itself, which lies at the core of any state across all times and places, is a crucial element in understanding what went on at that prison.

Individual states undertake a wide variety of different tasks, and garner support from various factions within their jurisdiction for a wide variety of different reasons. But what is it that makes every one of them a state, and sets them apart from all of the other social institutions that are not states? To help answer that question, I will suggest that the products of human action generally have a proper function. A style of building, a type of tool or machine, an institutional form, a custom, a science, or an artistic genre may be employed to serve a variety of needs: for example, a hammer can be used, quite successfully, as a paperweight. But whether the product was intentionally created or arose as the unintended consequence of actions aiming at some other end, there is usually some role in human life for which it is particularly suited. In the case of the hammer, although it can serve as a paperweight, ballast in a ship, or a meat tenderizer, its proper function is to drive nails into wood.

So what is the role for which the State is uniquely suited, which sets states apart from non-states? A variety of answers have been suggested at various times. Plato held that the State exists to bring out the best in human nature. Aristotle held a similar view, although the two philosophers differed sharply as to what sort of state would best achieve that goal. Hobbes contended that the rationale for the State’s existence was that without it, all humans would be in a perpetual state of war with each other, even if for some time they were not actively doing battle. More optimistic than Hobbes, Locke thought that social cooperation could occur in the “state of nature,” but that the State would enhance “natural” society by providing a stable body of law, by designating official, impartial judges to resolve disputes, and by giving the law teeth through its overwhelming preponderance of force compared to any individual miscreant. The American Declaration of Independence claimed that “Governments are instituted among Men” to secure “certain unalienable Rights” possessed by every human being, including the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” More recently, political philosophers such as John Rawls have agreed with the American founders that the State’s primary purpose is to protect the rights of its citizens, while significantly expanding the set of rights in question by including, for example, a right to a particular, minimum level of material well being.

Although a thorough examination of even one of the above ideas could fill a book, I will now offer my one paragraph survey of the history of political philosophy, indicating briefly why I think each of them misses the mark. Far from promoting human virtue, the State, and especially holding the reins of government power, has tended to bring out the worst in people, as they descend to lobbying for their special interests, bullying their neighbors into acceding to their will through politics, and employing whatever political power they hold to satisfy their personal desires. Far from bringing peace to human society, states have engaged in almost ceaseless warfare. Rather than protecting the rights of their citizens, states have been the foremost violators of those rights.

Furthermore, each of the roles listed above has been filled successfully by institutions other than the State. Philosophers and spiritual leaders have had better luck promoting human virtue than have government officials. Peace has more often come about when the citizens of warring states became so war weary that their governments could no longer persuade or compel sufficient numbers of them to fight. Rights have done far better by individuals and private organizations who resisted the power of the State than they have by governments. Even the social safety net beloved by modern political thinkers has been provided successfully by non-governmental means.

What role, then, can the State fill better than any alternative institution? I believe it is the following: Humans have hit upon no social arrangement that is superior to the State as a means by which a powerful elite can routinely and systematically plunder the rest of their society in order to acquire wealth and status for themselves. Furthermore, the continued existence of any particular state ultimately depends on how well it performs that function, since it is the flow of personal benefits it directs to those who hold power that keeps them at work enhancing the scope of government and developing and promoting ideologies that justify the existence of the State.

A defender of the State might dispute my analysis of its proper function in any number of ways, many of which I may not have considered yet. But three likely objections spring immediately to my mind, so, in keeping with America’s new doctrine of preemptive strikes, I will attempt to answer them before they have even been put forward. I do so by noting that each objection relies on pointing out the falsehood of some notion that is actually not implied by my thesis:

1) My suggestion does not imply that there aren’t many decent, honest people working for the State. They believe that the essence of the State consists in its unique ability to achieve some laudable goal, for example, one of the ones listed above. They are honest, but wrong: all of those goals can be achieved better without a State. The one thing that the State alone can best achieve is the systematic, organized exploitation of the mass of people in a society for the benefit of an elite class controlling the reigns of state power. And it is the efforts of the beneficiaries of that activity that sustains its existence.

2) It does not imply that only those in the service of the State will engage in systematic or frequent brutality. Just as there are exemplary individuals who happen to be government employees, so there are despicable worms out there committing free-lance evil. However, when a large number of apparently “ordinary” folk, liked and respected, as the news will report, by their friends and neighbors, take part in some extremely wicked activity, a little investigation will quite often reveal that they felt released from the strictures of ordinary morality because they bore some authority from the State.

3) It does not imply that the State does not engage in, and to some extent succeed at, the activities that are traditionally put forward to justify its existence. A criminal gang is seeking financial gain when it seizes control of some neighborhood. Nevertheless, if it has any sense, it will provide various services to the people in the area. For example, it certainly should prevent anyone else from entering the neighborhood and robbing the residents. It would probably be wise to distribute some of its stolen loot to the poorest people in the area. If a natural disaster strikes, the gangsters might benefit from providing relief, as conspicuously as possible, to the victims. The gang’s control ultimately relies on plausible threats or effective acts of violence directed against anyone who challenges its dominion. But violence is usually expensive; to whatever extent the mobsters can sell themselves as benefactors to the people they exploit, they can reduce the cost of maintaining control of the area. Offering any or all of the above “services” might prove to be less expensive than merely beating up the recalcitrant; indeed, historically, criminal organizations that have achieved extensive control over an area have typically engaged in such activities.

If my analysis of the essential nature of the State is correct, then even the most sincere “soul searching” over Abu Ghraib – or over the Gulag, or Auschwitz, or the fire bombing of Dresden, or the Cambodian killing fields, or Hiroshima – while obviously better than either blithely accepting or nonchalantly shrugging off such events, is superficial unless the search extends far enough to reveal what lies at the heart of the State. If I am right, then such blatant recourses to force come about when a state feels threatened enough to risk exposing its continual reliance on violence.

The view I put forward here does not deny that the agents of some states are better behaved than the agents of others, nor does it imply that the differences between various states are insignificant. No one in his right mind would prefer living in Pol Pot’s Cambodia to George W. Bush’s America, unless he was a moral monster who anticipated that Pol Pot’s Cambodia would allow him greater latitude for committing evil. But such a distinction is not very different from the fact that some slave-owners were far more decent to their slaves than others. Similarly, if you knew that your neighborhood was bound to be taken over by one of a pair of mobsters, no doubt you would rather Sammy “The Prudent” Giamboni won his gang war against Jimmy “Mad Dog” O’Sullivan. But the fact that the behavior of some slave owners or mob bosses is less onerous than that of others does not obviate the immoral nature of slavery and protection rackets. Nor can any state justify its existence or its actions by noting that the some other state is even more despicable than it is.

The fact that the soldiers involved were operating with the authority of a state behind them ought to figure prominently in any analysis of what occurred at that prison. They had been taught, most likely from childhood and certainly since joining the military, that loyalty to the state ruling over them is a sacred obligation. They were told, again and again, that the vital interests of the State can negate any limits that traditional moral strictures might place on their behavior.

The individuals at Abu Ghraib who were the immediate source of the abuse suffered by the prisoners certainly should have known that their actions were immoral. The nature of the institutional setting in which they found themselves does not relieve them of responsibility for the crimes they committed. Nevertheless, that setting helps make their evil deeds more comprehensible.

May 22, 2004

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives