Cruel and Usual Punishment, US-Style
by Seth Sandronsky
May 4, 2004

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What President Bush said after the recent news about Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American troops should be of no surprise.

"A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier saying we had achieved an important objective, accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," he told journalists at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "As a result, there are no longer torture chambers or mass graves or rape rooms in Iraq.”

Let the record show that this version of Iraqi reality is off the mark.

There are chambers of torture there. They are now being run by a different authority. The U.S. eagle has landed in the form of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is gone, but sadism as a political tool to oppress the Iraqi people is still around. The photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse that the American people are not seeing in their daily papers tell this story a thousand ways.

Iraqi oppression under the guise of U.S. liberation connects with another tall tale. That is the false image of America as a true democracy.

Prisoner torture can no more end in Iraq while it exists in the U.S. than people anywhere on the planet can live long without clean water. Just ask Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. A black man, he was arrested by New York’s finest in 1997. Later, they sodomized him with a broomstick. If that is not an example of depravity, we need a new definition of the word.

In the U.S., solitary confinement remains a policy of retribution within the prison population of two million human beings. About half of them are blacks, who make up 12 percent of the U.S. populace. Consider the case of Robert King Wilkerson, one of the Angola Three, African-American men accused and sentenced for killing prison guards, and imprisoned for decades in Louisiana. Wilkerson was found innocent and freed in early 2001. He had spent 29 years in solitary in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. And you thought that the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits such cruel and unusual punishment. Think again. The other two members of the Angola Three, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, remain in solitary at Angola, an 18,000-acre former plantation where people from the African continent were held in bondage.

Cut to 2003. Blacks were twice as likely as whites in America to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March. The reasons for blacks’ anti-war stance were plain as day. Their life experiences define second-class citizenship. One example is the job market. Blacks are the last hired and the first fired. You can look it up. As author Paul Street has noted, the idea of forcibly bringing liberation to a foreign nation while its does not exist for millions of people in the aggressor country violates common sense.

Freedom begins at home or it doesn’t begin at all.

What happens at home to maintain the credibility of U.S.-style imperialism bears watching. One big prop for empire is what scholar David Roediger calls “the white problem—the question of why and how whites reach the conclusion that their whiteness is meaningful.” This part of America’s national identity has been used by politicians in both parties to demonize foreign leaders as the nonwhite other. This leader, in turn, becomes a kind of proxy for the outlaw nation, so unlike (read white) America. Thus according to the particular situation, the nation must be bombed.

In the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Bush White House used the trope of whiteness to help justify waging a war on Iraq. One outcome has been increased global instability driven by competition between the rich nations for markets and resources. Another outcome has been the brutality of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops. That barbarity was foreshadowed by blacks’ oppression in America.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: ssandron@hotmail.com

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