Retribution or Reflection

Stephen Soldz

05/16/04 "ICH"
-- The last few weeks were deeply disturbing for most Americans. Most were shocked by the pictures out of Abu Ghraib, pictures of scenes that are usually viewed only in pornographic movies. These pictures raised the question for many as to how American soldiers could commit such acts, while some questioned whether these soldiers are, indeed, a force for good in that country. In the ensuing frenzy, it has become clear that abuse of Iraqi prisoners goes well beyond what is depicted in those photos, is long-standing, and has been pointed out to US officials by numerous individuals and human rights organizations. While launching secret investigations of a few individuals, these officials did little to mitigate the overall climate of abuse.

As we reel from the impact of these photos, word comes of the brutal execution by beheading of American businessman and hostage Nic Berg. Images of beheading, previously witnessed only by those choosing to view the most violent of horror movies, has entered our everyday world of work and family and spring flowers. 

In response to these appalling events, some of us turn off the news, blot out the horror, and return to our daily lives. Others demand retribution, talk of the evils of Islamic fundamentalists, or of Islam itself, and of the need to eradicate this evil, down to the last Iraqi. This urge for retribution is a natural human characteristic, albeit especially strong in both American and Arabic cultures. “An eye for an eye” the old testament teaches. Of course, those who perpetrated this beheading also claimed the mantle of retribution, for the abuses in Abu Ghraib in their case. An eye for an eye can continue in a persistently escalating cycle of violence and horror.

While seeking out and punishing those few who committed this horrendous crime is a necessity, this need not bind us to follow the path of retribution to its bitter end. We have another option available, the path of reflection. Reflection requires us to look within ourselves, to ground our thoughts in an awareness of the potential for rage and violence that lurks within each of us. If the human race learned anything in the 20th century, it was that violence and “evil” are not characteristics only of those among us who perform loathsome acts, but that most, if not all, of us are capable, given the right circumstances, of committing acts of which we would be ashamed. The Holocaust taught us this. Rwanda taught us this. The history of segregation and racial exclusion in our own country taught us this. And, when we are willing to honestly remember, Vietnam taught us this. Of course, we always “knew “ this. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is 2,000 years old. As in that biblical story, an awareness of our capacity for both good and evil can aid us in perceiving that those fighting us bear a striking similarity to ourselves. 

Reflection also requires us to reflect upon the other, the Iraqis. A just approach to Iraq should be centered principally, not upon American wishes and interests, but upon Iraqi wishes and interests. And the Iraqis whose wishes we consider should not primarily be those hand-picked Iraqis of the “Governing Council”, but ordinary Iraqis in their cities and towns, on their farms and in their mosques. What do they want?

Three recent polls of Iraqis give a glimpse of what they want. A poll by USA Today and CNN, concluded in early April before that month’s massive uprising and this month's prison abuse scandal, found that 56% of Iraqis wanted American troops to leave immediately, whatever the dangers. Fifty-eight percent felt that US troops had behaved either “fairly badly” or “very badly.” And 67% felt that American troops were not trying at all “to keep ordinary Iraqis from being killed or wounded during exchanges of gunfire.” These results included the generally pro-American Kurdish areas; in the non-Kurdish areas, people were even more anti-occupation. Remember, these results reflect Iraqi opinion before the past tumultuous month in which hundreds of civilians were killed in the siege of Falluja , and in which the Red Cross, the former Iraqi Human Rights Minister, and numerous others revealed they had been complaining of American brutality toward prisoners for many months, only to be met with silence.

Another poll conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, concluded in mid-April, found that a solid majority of Iraqis want the Americans out now. They say they will feel safer with US troops gone. In the same poll, Iraqis chose Muqtada al Sadr, whom the United States has vowed to “capture or kill”, as the second most respected man in Iraq. Remember, this poll was taken before the release of Abu Ghraib photos created an image of the American occupiers abusing and humiliating Iraqis that will remain the icon of the occupation for generations. As this is being written, word has leaked of yet another poll, conducted for Us officials and not publicly released, in which 82% of Iraqis surveyed disapprove of US and Coalition forces being in their country.

So, Iraqis have spoken. They have told us what they want. If democracy means anything, it means listening to the will of the overwhelming majority. They want us to leave their country. They want us to let Iraqis decide their own future, with whatever international help they choose. 

So at this time of horror, we can choose the path of retribution, acting tough and escalating our struggle with the major factions of Iraqi society wanting an end to occupation and the post-occupation US domination of their country, a struggle which will lead to horrible additional suffering for all involved. Alternatively, we can stop and reflect, upon ourselves and our multitude of motives noble and ignoble, upon our opponents, who resemble us in many ways, and upon the freedom and independence that Iraqis themselves overwhelmingly want. The spirit of democracy, of justice, and of human decency requires us to choose the latter path.

Stephen Soldz
Institute for the Study of Violence
Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis
(617) 469-3576 or (617) 277-3915
Founder, Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice

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