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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Post
Inside the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Post
Europe’s Hamilton Moment·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Pairs of moose-dung earrings sold each year at Grizzly’s Gifts in Anchorage, Alaska:

6,000

An Alaskan brown bear was reported to have scratched its face with barnacled rocks, making it the first bear seen using tools since 1972, when a Svalbardian polar bear is alleged to have clubbed a seal in the head with a block of ice.

A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today