The pictures from Abu Ghraib have achieved iconic status. The hooded man on the box, his arms outstretched, has superceded the image of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. The Bush administration will forever be remembered as “the administration that tortured.”
Iconic images have a concentrated power. The Abu Ghraib pictures convey, in visual shorthand, a range of messages — the sufferings of all Iraqis under U.S. occupation, the double standards of U.S. human rights policy, the failures of “democracy promotion.” They are pictures that are worth a thousand protests. The enduring images from the Vietnam War — the young girl running naked down the street to escape her napalmed village, the bullet-to-the-head execution of a Viet Cong officer — acquired the same power of concentration.
But iconic images have their disadvantages, too. Victims of violent crimes frequently talk of feeling victimized all over again when they recount their traumas. Even as we use the images to decry U.S. policy in Iraq, do we continue to torture the detainees from Abu Ghraib when we reproduce the images of their prison abuses?
When Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman saw the Abu Ghraib images, he began to incorporate them into his paintings. He was outraged, and he wanted to do something. But then he had a change of heart. “All sorts of artists had started to use these images, and the more they were used, the more they indicated Abu Ghraib without providing any understanding of Abu Ghraib,” he says in Interview with Daniel Heyman. “They became a kind of code for anger about so many things to do with the war. You flash on the famous picture of the man on the box, and people become numb to that image. And you re-humiliate that man. You re-victimize that person.”
Heyman has now listened to dozens of former Abu Ghraib detainees tell their stories. The result is a startling series of portraits that combine images and words in a powerful rehumanization of the victims. The artist will be in Washington, DC on October 25 to speak on a panel with American University (AU) professor Julie Mertus and Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Katherine Gallagher in an event moderated by Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies and co-sponsored by Foreign Policy In Focus and Provisions Library as part of the Close Encounters exhibit at the AU’s Katzen Art Center.
The Close Encounters exhibit is only one of a series of artistic interventions in this election year. The Art of Democracy project launched nearly 50 exhibitions across the United States over the last year. Artist Mark Vallen participated in one of the largest, War and Empire, at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, which also includes works on torture by Fernando Botero and Gus Colwell. Vallen, in a review for Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) of the exhibit that includes interviews with other contributing artists, writes, “When the painting Abuse, which depicts the torture of Iraqi prisoners by their U.S. jailers at the Abu Ghraib prison, first appeared at San Francisco’s Capobianco Gallery in May 2004, unknown assailants physically assaulted gallery owner Lori Haigh. A campaign of threat and harassment eventually forced her to permanently close her gallery. The painter Guy Colwell essentially went underground in order to avoid harm.” Colwell is back at the Meridian Gallery with his gloss on Magritte and waterboarding entitled This Is Not Torture.
Also in our latest installment of Fiesta! — the FPIF feature that explores the intersection of culture and foreign policy — poet Kathy Engel describes how others fight the terror in their lives — through beauty, humor, memory, and thought. Her poem, Prelude, takes us to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ramallah, and the South Bronx to remind us of all that came before September 11.
The Financial Crisis and War
The financial bailout package is certainly huge: $700 billion or so. But the economic analysts are quick to reassure us that the money will come back to the government once it sells off all those faulty mortgages. Too bad we can’t be similarly reassured about the same amount we spend every year on defense (don’t worry, America, the government gets all that money back when we sell old fighter jets to corporate execs looking for really fast charter planes).
That’s right, the numbers here are eerily similar, as FPIF contributor Travis Sharp points out in Goodbye to Defense’s Gilded Age? “What many Americans may not realize is that the United States is likely to spend $711 billion on national defense in the fiscal year that began on October 1 (assuming fiscal year 2009 war costs are $170 billion, an estimate provided by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). You read that correctly: the United States will spend more on defense over the next 365 days than on the $700 bailout package.”
This huge military budget is full of all that juicy pork that deficit hawks find everywhere but in the Pentagon. “There is a large Cold War ‘hangover’ of systems that serve no clear mission in the current global security environment, from $300 million-per-copy F-22 combat aircraft that were designed in response to a new generation of Soviet fighter planes that were never produced to $1 billion-per-copy Virginia-class attack submarines that were originally intended to shadow Soviet subs that are now mostly rusting away in Russian ports,” writes FPIF contributor William Hartung in Stop Bailing Out the Arms Industry.
So, let’s see, major budget deficit looming, major Pentagon spending on the horizon: seems like a no-brainer of a policy choice. “When we hear about the consequences of the $700-plus Wall Street bailout, we hear a lot about inevitable cuts in other budget items,” writes FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis in As Its Economic Power Wanes, Does the U.S. Lean Harder on the Military? “But the military budget — not to mention the supplemental budgets to continue fighting illegal and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — is somehow never on the list of those items that could be cut.”
In the fourth contribution to our roundtable on war and the financial crisis, FPIF contributor Suzanne Smith offers a clear-headed recommendation in A Chance to Alter the Energy Security Equation. “Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil a day and 60% of that is imported,” she writes. “We use the military to defend and gain access to those global resources. We pay for this through our tax dollars. Therefore, the true cost of our nation’s dependence on non-renewable sources of energy to fuel our economy is not entirely reflected in the high prices we pay at the pump. The key to extricating our military policy from our energy consumption, and deconstructing and accessing the enormous military budget, lies in substantially increasing our investment in renewable energy sources.”
The Financial Crisis and the Environment
There’s rejoicing about the global economic crisis in some quarters: the polar ice cap, Amazon rain forests, and low-lying islands in the Pacific. As FPIF columnist Michael Klare explains in The Crisis and the Environment, “The good news is that economic hard times will cause people to drive less, fly less, and otherwise consume less energy, thus lowering expectations for greenhouse-gas emissions. According to the most recent projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, global oil demand in 2008 will be 240,000 barrels per day less than in its earlier predictions, and 440,000 barrels per day less than in its predictions for 2009. Many experts believe, moreover, that demand will drop even further in the weeks and months ahead as the economic crisis deepens and consumers around the world cut back on their travel and energy use — and the less oil consumed, the less CO2 emitted.”
Alas, Klare points out, declining oil prices also translate into less market interest in alternative energy sources. FPIF contributor John Beckett notes that neither the U.S. government nor the presidential candidates show sufficient interest either.
“While Congress steadfastly declines to increase taxes on an oil industry making record profits — taxes that could be used to develop alternative energy — Europe and other nations, including China, forge far ahead in weaning themselves from dependence on petroleum,” Beckett writes in The Candidates and Energy Independence. “While the government stumbles all over itself to hand hundreds of billions to reckless speculators, only grudgingly does it support alternative energy. And although Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is likely to be more supportive of alternative energy than Republican John McCain, neither party’s platform includes the sort of aggressive plan that America really needs.”
Roots of Crisis
As the Bush administration lurches from one crisis to another, the mainstream media presents the president as a lightweight in a boxing ring getting his nose bloodied by one unexpected blow after another. But the crises are not unexpected. And they’re largely self-inflicted.
“As the disaster known as the Bush era draws to a close, we’d do well to recognize just how deep its failures go,” writes FPIF contributor Sameer Dossani in Ideological Failure. “The Bush debacles — unbridled deregulation, illegal and immoral wars, the experiment in ‘disaster capitalism’ that used to be the proud city of New Orleans — aren’t primarily or exclusively policy failures. They’re failures caused by two distinct yet interconnected ideologies: neoliberalism and neoconservatism.” Dossani demonstrates how the interplay between these neo-ideologies have brought ruin to the House of Bush.
One of these manufactured crises involves Iran. Writes Phyllis Bennis in Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis, “The Bush administration has claimed, almost since coming into office, that Iran is a ‘threat’ to the United States. Even U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Iran doesn’t possess nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons program, and that it is very unclear whether Iran even wants to build such a weapon. Iran has never threatened the United States. (And unlike many countries in its neighborhood, Iran has not invaded another country in over a century.)”
Voices from Africa
For the first time in its history, the United Nations listened directly to the voices of African farmers. As FPIF contributor Nora McKeon writes in Postcard from…the UN, Ndiogou Fall and Elisabeth Atangana of two African peasant organizations recently addressed the UN General Assembly about the food crisis. “The current rise in food prices has brought hungry urban dwellers to the streets in riots in more than 40 countries over the past months, more than half of them in Africa,” writes McKeon. But, as Ndiogou Fall points out, ‘the worst sufferers are the silent, scattered rural dwellers, some 70% of Africa’s population and the majority of the region’s poor.’”
Finally, I review A Thousand Hills, Stephen Kinzer’s new book on Rwanda and its leader Paul Kagame. There has been some controversy over Kinzer’s depiction of Kagame. But the heart of the book is about “the millions of ordinary Rwandans who confront their demons, those within and those without. ‘My family was killed,’ says survivor Bonaventure Niyibizi. ‘My mother was hacked to death and thrown into a river. I know the people who did it. They confessed. According to law, they have been released after serving seven years in prison. On the political side, I understand this. As an individual, I do not understand.’ It is this mysterious gulf between the individual and the political that Kinzer’s book excels in illuminating.”
And it’s this mysterious gulf that Daniel Heyman, too, illuminates in his portraits: come out if you can on October 25 to hear him and see his work.
FPIF, October 21, 2008