No Comment — May 4, 2009, 10:26 am

The Scapegoats

It’s typical in Beltway political discussion now to refer to demands for accountability for Bush Administration officials involved in the introduction of the torture program as “scapegoating.” This is a strange use of the word, which usually refers to the process of pushing blame off on a powerless, weak person. You do not “scapegoat” people at the pinnacle of power. Of course, the dean of the Beltway bloviators, David Broder, is not limited by the confines of common usage. But Broder and his ilk also forget how the Bush Administration itself used scapegoating as a first line of defense. As soon as the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Bagram landed on the airwaves, the Rumsfeld Pentagon began attacking individual soldiers wearing their nation’s service uniform as “hillbillies” and as “bad apples.” The verbal attacks turned into courts-martial, which were skillfully arranged in Fort Hood, Texas. Pentagon Public Affairs officers disseminated press kits and encouraged reporters to come cover the show. America was dispensing justice to the authors of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Except it wasn’t. The torture memos, the flowchart of decision-making reaching into the White House, and the Senate Armed Services Committee report make clear that the abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred as the proximate result of decisions taken at the top of the Bush Administration. Indeed, the Army’s chief investigator of the abuse, Major General Antonio Taguba, put a very fine point on it in June 2008: “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered torture will be held to account.”

So what about all those grunts who in fact got scapegoated? The Times (London) reports:

Twelve guards at Abu Ghraib were convicted on charges related to the abuse, which included attaching leads to naked prisoners, terrifying them with dogs, beatings and slamming them into walls. The wall-slamming was a technique authorised by Justice Department officials at the time, who also said that the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding was not considered to be torture.

Charles Gittins, a lawyer who represents Charles Graner, the ringleader of the guards who is serving a ten-year sentence, said that the memos proved his long-held contention that Graner and the other defendants, including his former lover Lynndie England, could never have invented tactics such as stress positions and the use of dogs on their own. “Once the pictures came out, the senior officials involved in the decision-making, they knew. They knew they had to have a cover story. It was the ‘bad apples’ led by Charles Graner,” Mr Gittins told The Washington Post.

Now some of the enlisted personnel convicted are seeking to have their convictions overturned on the grounds that the techniques they used were approved.

What are their prospects? The evidence is increasingly clear that, though they may indeed be guilty of the offenses charged against them, they were offered up as scapegoats. More senior figures at Abu Ghraib, such as Colonel Pappas and Lieutenant Colonel Jordan, wound up escaping any serious accountability. Why? The answer may well be that Pappas and Jordan knew things about the involvement of senior command that they could wield in their defense. The grunts had no access to such information.

One measure of the ultimate fairness of any justice system is whether it affords equal access to the poorest and weakest members of society. The whole story of torture accountability in the United States so far is a radical subversion of that notion. The weak and powerless figures at the bottom of the food chain are tried, condemned, and made into public examples. The great and powerful figures who secretly make policy for the government behind closed doors escape any form of accountability and have newspapers around the country who rush to defend them from “scapegoating.” It’s perverse.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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