The world is an ugly ugly place. Those of us who live in America or other sections of the civilized world are SO incredibly lucky to have been born where we were. For the most part we avoid the true horrors around us and live comfortable lives where most of our concerns are relatively minor. Of course the pain from those concerns is in some ways equivalent to that of those who are suffering from true oppression, thanks to the lovely fact that humans feel things relatively rather than absolutely, but if we look empirically we see that our lives are so much better than they could be. That's not to say bad things don't happen. They do. Rape and murder still exist alongside amber waves of grain, but they are anamolies here, they are norms in many places. We have it great.
That's part of why I don't write about these kinds of things. It makes the rest of my life seem kind of trivial. "Wah wah chicks don't dig me." Oh yeah? Well talk to the thousands of people who found the true loves of their lives only to have them taken away by their own government, conceived of in murder and repression.
"I don't know what I want to do with my life." At least you have some kind of choice and opportunity. Talk to those who never got schooling and need to work 16 hours a day just to have enough food to eat. Talk to slaves in the Sudan whose lives are not their own.
"I'm fat. There's too much food around here!" I hear Ethiopia is LOVERLY this time of year. If not, well you did like Zimbabwe didn't you? Just don't buy a farm down there. Probably not a good investment, that.
I don't feel qualified to talk about the goings on in that prison except to say that I'm not surprised and I don't necessarily think the people involved were sociopaths, they were just normal people like the type found in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. They did horrible things when given power without appropriate restriction. Nothing's new under the sun in that regard.
I do want to talk about power though, and guns. On Saturday when I was filming with Frank and Marissa, we had a scene where she put a gun to his head in order to rob him. We used a realistic looking air gun. We made sure that it was totally unloaded and completely safely. Still, when I saw it placed against his temple and the look of (purely fictional) terror on his face. I felt a little twinge. Like we shouldn't have been doing that. It was a visceral reaction to a powerful image.
And I imagine what it's like when the guns are real. A gun is a very powerful thing. It's a machine designed for killing. When fired it spits out a metal object (or more than one) at near or above supersonic speeds. This object can be designed to do a variety of things when it contacts flesh, ranging from punching right through and leaving a hole to flattening out into a mushroom and shattering into pieces, turning the beautiful archiecture of the human body into a sack of shredded flesh. Guns can punch through brick walls or engine blocks. In the hands of a skilled individual they can kill a man from a distance of a mile or more, like wiping an unpleasant speck of dust from the horizon.
They are tools with more abilities than ancient peoples gave to magic or even sometimes their gods. They are, to wit, no joke.
As symbols they are perhaps even more powerful. Some people define a government as any organization that has a monopoly of violence in a given geographical area. Occasionally the term 'legitimate' is thrown in there, but I don't know if the idea of "legitimate" violence sits well with me. Violence should always be the last resort, unless you're an ex-football star whose ex-wife has a new beau.
Because of this monopoly of violence guns are often associated with governments, and especially the American government. When you think of America what are the top 5 images that pop into your mind? The flag? Sure. The Bald Eagle? Maybe. The American Soldier? And what's he carrying? (People who say "The constitution" are generally bullshiting. The Constitution is an ideal not an image. Do you really imagine a long strip of parchment with some black markings on it and a big ass signature at the bottom?) Often we imagine the soldier beneath the flag. We could throw in a dollar bill if you'd like.
In other countries, when they think of America, they often just see the guns. And why not? It's there in our constitution right after free speech and religion. America. The right to believe what you want, talk about it, and shoot anyone who tries to stop you. Everything else is secondary or tertiary. That's who we are as a people.
Only it's never as simple as that. We balance out the guns through things like elections and court systems. We train our Men with Guns (a brilliant film if you haven't seen it) to follow civilian directives and act as the fist, but not the arbiter, of justice. That's what I think happened in that Baghdad prison. We had a bunch of people with guns running roughshod over a group who didn't have any, and no reins to pull them in. When you have a gun you have the power of life and death. Check that. You have the power of death. (You could argue that women soldiers who have both guns and uteruses have the power of life and death, but I don't want to go there.) Most people don't have the moral strength to control that power. You need to distribute that power between those who wield it and those who decide where it should be wielded. You need laws and regulations.
That's why I blame Bush and Rumsfeld. They didn't put sufficient restraint on that power in place and the results were predictable. Milgram. Zimbardo. They showed that normal people can do horrible things without being coerced to do so. Literally millions of cases of opportunism has shown that man's natural tendancy is towards the unfair and abusive. It was a deadly cocktail.
I spent a good deal of yesterday arguing this point on Livejournal with people who just wouldn't accept that these were not just individuals who performed badly but a failure of the military structure to put sufficient restrictions in place. It was a command failure, not a bunch of sociopaths. Yes the individuals are to blame, but they are not the only ones.
The military created an inequitable island and left its soldiers there with prisoners. Apparently they never read Lord of the Flies.
People doubted this argument and even called me names for presenting it.
Today the New York Times front page had above the fold "Command errors aided Iraq abuse."
Damn it feels good to be a gangster.