The U.S. military recently uncovered alleged evidence of torture in Iraqi-run Baghdad prisons, including what appeared to be a torture chamber in an Iraqi Ministry of Interior detention facility. The Sunni reaction to these discoveries poses a considerable problem for proponents of the anti-American “torture narrative”: The Sunnis are calling on the U.S. military to correct the situation! “I wish the Americans would go to [the prisons] and find out about it,” former detainee Sadiq Abdul Razzaq Samarrai told the New York Times.
This is bizarre behavior indeed. According to Andrew Sullivan, Seymour Hersh, and other proponents of the “torture narrative,” Americans are the leading sadists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. For the Sunnis to ask the Americans to protect them against alleged Shiite abuse would seem to them as delusional as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz appealing to Hitler for salvation.
But the Iraqi reaction to the recent torture allegations defies the conventional “torture” wisdom in more ways than one. It turns out that the safest prisons in Iraq are those enjoying regular American oversight. Another former detainee, Amar Sami Samarrai (cousin of Sadiq Abdul), credits his safe treatment to the fact that the Americans had gone through his detention center near Baghdad four times during his 38-day stay, according to the New York Times.
To be sure, American soldiers have abused prisoners under their control—in 24 cases lethally. But that abuse was the result of individual soldiers violating their power; it was in no way sanctioned by military authority. Compared to the tens of thousands of captives taken in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the incidents of abuse have been minimal. The vast majority of violations occurred at the point of capture, when the boundary between battle and captivity—the boundary that separates a lawful killing of the enemy one moment from a criminal homicide the next—is exceedingly fluid.
Prisoners have also been abused in detention centers, most notoriously at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The prison abuse resulted from commander incompetence—incompetence that allowed discipline at the Abu Ghraib prison to break down completely. Contrary to the “torture narrative,” nothing in U.S. interrogation policy allowed prisoners to be assaulted, forced to masturbate, or stacked naked in piles, nor did such maltreatment have anything to do with interrogation.
The one place where the Abu Ghraib scandal did not provoke an orgy of America-bashing was in Iraq itself, according to a Baghdad-based reporter for a prominent American newspaper. The former subjects of Saddam Hussein, apparently, know the difference between torture and the sick adolescent abuse of power. The Iraqis were more impressed with the American determination to wipe out that abuse than with its occurrence in the first place, says the Baghdad correspondent.
Of course proponents of the “torture narrative” are not about to cease denouncing American “torture policies” just because the evidence is against them. Andrew Sullivan, faced with the odd behavior of the people he deems the target of America’s persecution, put up an exceedingly brave front. After citing the American military’s condemnation of Baghdad’s alleged secret torture chamber—“The alleged mistreatment of detainees and the inhumane conditions at an Iraqi Ministry of Interior detention facility is very serious, and totally unacceptable”—Sullivan adds snidely, “We led by example, didn’t we?”
Actually, we didn’t. Whereas the Baghdad detainees appeared to have been starved and were covered with lacerations and bruises, terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have bulked up from their three square Halal meals a day and are receiving sophisticated medical care—often the first medical care they have received in their lives. The Baghdad prison contained instruments of torture, like a medieval-style mace; the American rules for interrogation in every theater of conflict required that the detainees be treated humanely, and the authorities have investigated and punished any deviation from that standard.
When the history of the war on terror is written, the strangest chapter will address why so many American intellectuals were so determined to believe the absolute worst about U.S. behavior. Unfortunately, their willful self-delusion has influenced American intelligence policy more than has the truth.