As the United States transfers partial sovereignty to the Iraqi people this week, the question remains: What to make of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and its disturbing images of torture and humiliation?
First, the basics: Was it a matter of a few American troops, a few "bad apples," acting on their own, or was the abuse more widespread, part of a systematic disregard for human rights communicated from the highest levels of government?
Recently released CIA, Pentagon, and Justice Department memos condoning low-grade torture in the war against terrorism appear to confirm the latter. But there were also early hints in the digital photos and videos of the prison abuse. Cropped, the pictures suggest the work of only a handful of reservists. Uncropped, they show more soldiers, some identified as military intelligence officers, standing around, a few watching, others preoccupied with the most mundane activities. One picture reveals a man cleaning his fingernails.
There are hundreds of unreleased photos said to be much worse, scenes of rape and even murder.
But the images are more than just evidence. They're icons, Rorschachs used by commentators to justify, criticize or deconstruct the war, and the United States.
Many of the pictures do resemble grotesque political cartoons—human pyramids; a prisoner in a cruciform pose atop a box with red wires curling away from his fingers; prisoners pantomiming sexual acts; prisoners cowering before attack dogs. They're impossible caricatures, their effects exaggerated because removed from the larger, more complicated context of the war. They are images even the most zealous anti-war cartoonist would feel uneasy imagining, let alone sketching. And there are hundreds of unreleased photos said to be much worse, scenes of rape and even murder.
Some commentators—mostly conservatives, such as Robert Knight of Concerned Women of America, but even left-wing social critic Susan Sontag—cited our society's addiction to hard-core pornography to explain the scandal. Why else would the abuse have included so much nudity, sex, sado-masochism—and exhibitionism, in the form of extensive photo and video documentation? In their view, the prison was an outpost of our debased, porn-soaked culture.
Consider two of the main protagonists in this spectacle: Army Corporal Charles Graner, Jr.,—an alleged wife beater once divorced and now, according to some sources, engaged to the pregnant twenty-one-year-old Army Pfc. Lynndie England, seen giving exuberant thumbs-up gestures while standing in front of naked, hooded prisoners, and other times pointing directly to the genitals of prisoners. Some of the unreleased photos are said to show England having sex with other MPs.
Some had predicted that the actions of Graner, England and the rest would be explained away by a military psychiatrist. A picture would be painted in the courtroom: the pressures of guarding so many prisoners; the nightly mortar attacks; Graner's broken marriage; his abusive, domineering personality; the pixie-ish, twenty-one-year-old naïf, England, from Nowheresville, West Virgina who joined the reserves to fund her dreams of becoming a meteorologist. After all, psychological experiments have proved that anyone, given the right conditions, can become a torturer, right? In this scenario, the abuse is reduced to a problem of abnormal psychology.
But moral and psychological interpretations of the scandal—usually in the service of ideology—fall short. There's another more profound, tragic, spiritual sense in which to understand the disturbing images of Abu Ghraib, a view informed by a genuinely Catholic view of innocence, sin and grace.
Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor would have considered the images of the prison scandal grotesque, but not in what she called "the pejorative sense"—of just plain images of ugliness and ignorance. For O'Connor—whose characters are some of the most memorable grotesqueries in American literature—the grotesque makes visible hidden "discrepancies" between character and belief. Such images "connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye."
O’Connor’s characters think of themselves as good people, but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise.
Take Cpl. Graner, for example. His pick-up truck, still parked in the driveway of his Uniontown, Pennsylvania home at the time of incident, bears a license plate with the word Jesus and a picture of a cross. There is also a smooth stone in, appropriately enough, a "weed-choked" flower bed in front of his house, painted with a verse from the book of Hosea: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you" (Hosea 10:12 NIV).
This stone is mentioned in most of the early newspaper coverage about Abu Ghraib, treated as a bit of profound irony, the kind of coincidence that newspaper reporters salivate over. How could a man with this bit of scripture displayed prominently in his "postage-stamp" of a front yard, as one local Pittsburgh news weekly described it, commit such atrocious acts? It's an irony the secular press isn't equipped to engage at any depth.
Such ironies were the stuff of O'Connor's stories. Her characters think of themselves as Christians or otherwise "good people," but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise. Their pride blinds them to their own flaws, and only violence—usually from an unlikely source—opens their eyes, and offers them a chance at redemption.
For O'Connor, her native American South was the perfect landscape against which to paint her grotesque figures. But to Catholics in the 1950's O'Connor's fascination with bizarre characters from the nation's most Protestant region was unsettling. She addressed their "certain impatience" with her work in 1963 at a speaking engagement at Georgetown University, in a speech titled "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South:"
The American Catholic trusts the fictional imagination about as little as he trusts anything. Before it's well on its feet, he's busy looking for heresy in it. The Catholic press is constantly broken out in a rash of articles on the failure of the Catholic novelist. The Catholic novelist is failing to reflect the virtue of hope, failing to show the Church's interest in social justice, failing to show life as positive good, failing to portray our beliefs in a light that will make them desirable to others.
O'Connor accounts for this by accusing the Catholic reader of being "more Manichaean than the Church permits... by separating nature from grace."
"Manichaeism"—or Dualism—was a third-century religion inspired by a Persian, Mani. It claimed the universe was governed by two eternal, separate—and equal—forces: Good and Evil. Dualism has a certain attraction for Christians. In fact, in his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, "I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market." But, Lewis continued, "It has a catch to it." Lewis, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, does his usual brilliant job of refuting Dualism, and showing why Christianity is not dualistic—that the one eternal principle in Christianity, God, is good, that everything God made is good, and that evil is merely a perversion of the good:
For O’Connor, removing sin from life — or fiction — meant cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace.
"And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers that enable evil to carry on are power given to it by goodness. All the things which enable a man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things—resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work."
How to account for evil, then? Lewis continues: "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right." Evil is the pursuit of good things—pleasure, money, power, etc., "by the wrong method."
That's O'Connor territory. Her stories reveal the hidden evil residing in the human heart, the pursuit of good that masks a secret pride.
Some have questioned her preoccupation with the sins of upright, decent people. But there's a significant precedent—in the Gospels. Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'
"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." [Luke 18:10-14]
The parable seems overly harsh on the Pharisee. But that's only because we've forgotten what pride is. Lewis reminds us: Pride is "the essential vice, the utmost evil... it is the complete anti-God state of mind." Then there's St. Thomas Aquinas: "Pride extinguishes all the virtues and destroys all the powers of the soul, since its rule extends to them all."
Pride sets us against each other, and, most important, against God. To cure us of it, God allows us to sin. Again, St. Thomas: "the gravity of sins of pride is shown by the fact that God allows man to fall into other sins in order to heal him from pride."
For O'Connor, God's providence was realized not despite our sins, but through them. Removing sin from life—or fiction—meant essentially cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace. Life—or literature, becomes either sentimental or obscene, and while "preferring the former, and being more of an authority on the latter," the Catholic reader fails to see their similarity. "He forgets," she continues, that:
sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence and that innocence whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite... Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.
The opposite of innocence? Abu Ghraib, maybe? When we consider the United States, was there ever a country more naively, optimistically moral? But by separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil. Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?
For Flannery O'Connor, such contradictions explained Southern literature's tendency toward the violent and grotesque.
The South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies. An identity is not made from what passes, from slavery to segregation, but from those qualities that endure because they are related to truth. It is not made from the mean average or the typical but often from the hidden and most extreme.
According to O'Connor, the South was not so much "Christ-Centered" as "Christ-Haunted." She believed that the most challenging images of Christ were pushed aside in the South in favor of more palatable ones, ones that would allow for the continued separation and inequality between the races. However, these sublimated images eventually return as "fierce and instructive" ghosts, to cast menacing shadows across the landscape. These menacing shadows are the raw material of much Southern literature, from the well-mannered, sober Eudora Welty to the drunken tortured genius of Faulkner. And as Susan Sontag pointed out in her New York Times Magazine essay about Abu Ghraib, "The Pictures Are Us," those same ghosts can be seen in the lynching photos of the late 19th and early 20th century.
We forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional — a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil.
And so we see America, 2004, also as "Christ-Haunted." Tom Junod's article "Jesus 2004," which appeared in the May issue of Esquire, reports that 80% of Americans believe in Jesus Christ and consider themselves Christian. What differs wildly, however, is exactly who these 80% think they're believing in. Junod's piece reveals there is no consensus, but in general Christ is a good guy, he's there for us when we need him, he's personable, even handsome. Ultimately, Junod's piece suggests the personalization of Jesus, the recasting of Jesus in our own (inevitably disordered) human image. This is a phenomenon O'Connor was witnessing even in the early sixties. Our concept of Christ has, O'Connor wrote, "gone underneath and come out in distorted forms."
In March 1961, O'Connor received a letter from a professor of English "writing as a spokesman for three members of our department and some ninety university students in three classes" who had been discussing A Good Man is Hard to Find, her most anthologized and debated story. The plot goes like this: a family of four (Mom, Dad, Sis and Brother) driving along with their self-righteous, superficial, tagalong grandmother, get into an accident on a deserted country road. An escaped convict called "the Misfit" happens on the scene with his gang and proceeds to execute each family member, one by one, in the nearby woods. The grandmother is the last to be killed, but before she's shot she tries to save her own life by appealing to the Misfit's belief in God.
The letter reads:
We have debated at length several possible interpretations, none of which fully satisfies us. In general we believe that the appearance of the Misfit is not 'real' in the same sense that the incidents of the first half of the story are real. Bailey [the father], we believe, imagines the appearance of the Misfit, whose activities have been called to his attention on the night before the trip and again during the stopover at the roadside restaurant. Bailey, we further believe, identifies himself with the Misfit and so plays two roles in the imaginary last half of the story. But we cannot, after great effort, determine the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie. Does the accident literally occur, or is it part of Bailey's dream? Please believe me when I say we are not seeking an easy way out of our difficulty. We admire your story and have examined it with great care, but we are not convinced that we are missing something important which you intended us to grasp. We will all be very grateful if you comment on the interpretation which I have outlined above and if you will give us further comments about your intention in writing 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.'
O'Connor replied, "To a Professor of English,"
The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology.
There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality. This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.
O'Connor was by then used to comments like this from readers who mistook the Misfit's disavowal of Christianity as just one more reason he was evil and irredeemable, as well as one more reason why the grandmother was sympathetic and good. The Misfit says:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead... and he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything you own and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
The English Professor's letter misses the point of the Misfit's answer, and the good Christian grandmother's lapse into doubt, as she says: "Maybe He didn't raise the dead." When the Misfit, in a moment of despair, breaks down and says, "If I had of been there I would have known, and I wouldn't be like I am now," the grandmother's eyes are opened, and she issues her famous last statement: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children." The shock of her words, and her reaching to touch him, causes the Misfit to "spring back as if a snake had bitten him," and then shoot her. The stakes of O'Connor's story are revealed: it's about the question of Christ's authenticity.
That some readers didn't "get" her stories, O'Connor blamed on the "Manichaean spirit of the times," a spirit which caused a "disjunction between sensibility and belief." This disjunction was at the root of calls for O'Connor to "...express this great country—which is enjoying unparalleled prosperity, which is the strongest nation in the world, and which has produced an almost classless society," instead of writing stories filled with violence and deception.
According to O'Connor this was the fundamental divide between her vision as a Christian writer and what many of her readers expected. These readers wanted to...
separate mystery from manners and judgment from vision, in order to produce something a little more palatable to the modern temper... [and to] form our consciences in the light of statistics, which is to establish the relative as absolute.
O'Connor's "Good Man..." is informed by this very tension. Its ending illustrates what happens when these divergent sensibilities converge. When, at the end, the Misfit says of the grandmother, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life," he's acknowledging that when, on the brink of death, she looked into his face, she saw what Jesus sees in every human being. God's grace is at work here—the Misfit's rage abates, if only briefly, and the grandmother's pride is burned away.
People hounded O'Connor about the meaning of the ending. One letter to O'Connor asks, "Why did you end the story the way you did? Isn't it clear that the reader sympathizes with her?" To which O'Connor replied, "I guess I should have kept writing till the police arrived." Which is to say: "Don't you see? We are a culture obsessed with this kind of ending." O'Connor's artistic vision, her Christ-centered view of the world, makes the old deus ex machina obsolete and sentimental—too little too late. Her stories never end with the good being delivered from the evil, with the police arriving to restore order. The most you can hope for in O'Connor's stories is a glimpse of what is, to her, real: that God's love, visible in the ultimate sacrifice of his only begotten son, conquers death—even the fictional kind.
Will Christians in America see the images of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib as evidence of the spiritual struggle within all human beings — within us?
But alas, this usually happens via violence, the only thing that will get her characters'—and the reader's—attention, she famously said.
Will Christians in America see the images of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib as O'Connor would, as evidence of the spiritual struggle within all human beings—within us—or as the Professor of English would, a deviant fantasy dreamed up by desperate characters? What is the cost of treating these events as the result of abnormal psychology? At what cost do we demand to see ourselves as redeemers—the judgers of Good and Evil?
The LORD keeps those who are constant, but more than requites those who act proudly. (Psalm 31)