Continued revelations that US troops torture Iraqi prisoners and that British troops may do the same, seem to divide people into two camps; the shocked and the unsurprised. Meanwhile commentators like the Observer’s David Aaronovitch miss a point when saying that Arabs do worse to other Arabs; it’s true but those regimes don’t list Western human rights among their ideals.
The shocked tend to be idealistic war supporters who believe in the west’s moral superiority and can’t imagine their fellow countrymen behaving so badly. (The same people tut-tutted snootily at Iraqi looters as if removing the rule of law wouldn’t have provoked a similar response here.) While said with all sincerity, this claim rings terribly untrue. Friends of ours run wonderful writing holidays where people concoct films and novels. Asked to imagine horrific scenes of torture and humiliation all participants would oblige with vigour. Consider films like Das Experiment, based on stuff that went on at some US university or cult movie Battle Royale (both worth a look), which echo themes famously established in Lord of the Flies. We can all imagine doing what those soldiers did.
Imagining the act, watching it on film or reading it in a book is not a symptom of psychosis. But if the people you’ve captured were trying to kill you – even with war as an excuse – it would be hard not to take things personally. And if those people never subscribed to your high morals and would happily have tortured you, you might fancy showing them how it’s done. In the absence of the rule of law, terrified and surrounded by brutality – as in a war zone – it should come as no surprise that our fellow citizens act out of character in the most horrific way.
Understanding does not excuse. Instead, it should inform the creation of systems and procedures that recognise that people do terrible things given the chance and inform rules that make us better people by putting the rights of prisoners first, even if those prisoners had been trying to kill us all.
UPDATE: Ban Lord of the Flies? Not me