The Dance of Civilizations

The Dance of Civilizations

Every photograph records an event. But the Abu Ghraib photographs are an event in themselves. In this, they join a long and ignoble line of photographs-including those of lynching carnivals in the American South, and those taken in too many European countries during the Nazi period-that not only depict cruelty but celebrate it. The behavior these photographs document is bad, but it is the very fact that the photographs were made, and the happiness of the tormentors that they show, that disorients us. Civilization isn’t contingent on the hope that people will never harm each other-if it were, there would be no civilization anywhere on Earth; but it does assume, at least implicitly, that people will be ashamed, and fear the consequences, of the hurtful acts they commit. When that shame and fear are lacking, we all feel threatened. For how can we trust a world in which my pain, or yours, is the pride and joy of another, and where impunity reigns?

Millions of people throughout the world have now seen the Abu Ghraib images; surely they are among the most widely disseminated ever. And almost instantly, they became internationally recognized icons. They have appeared on the front pages of countless newspapers and magazines in East and West; on innumerable Web sites and television programs; on signs, leaflets, and posters. They have zipped through e-mails in the millions (billions?). They hang on walls all over the world, including four clean white ones in a New York museum and one of massive stone on a Tehran street, and on gravestones in Gaza City accompanied by the promise, “We Will Revenge.” They can, like all photographs, be put to vastly disparate uses, and will surely be reproduced in both the recruiting videos of terrorist groups and the fundraising pamphlets of human-rights organizations. They have inspired a global conversation.

In this country, the photographs have led to some sober reflections and impressive investigative reporting. But they have had less fortunate consequences, too. On the left, they have inspired paroxysms of self-hate; I have been to panel discussions on Abu Ghraib, in New York, in which the United States was depicted as a uniquely depraved force of destruction. The right, conversely, has grasped onto an embarrassing moral relativism, pointing to the systemic violence of the Arab regimes as a supposed counterbalance to Abu Ghraib. (One Wall Street Journal columnist asked angrily, “TV can run Abu Ghraib’s photos 24/7 but can’t find 55 minutes for Saddam’s crimes against humanity?”) Both these reactions obscure the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs. For what they and, even more, the controversies over them reveal is not that the West is more barbaric than the East, or vice versa. Rather, they make clear-or at least should-the many ways in which East and West are now joined, intimately and unwillingly, in a diabolical pas de deux of violence and...

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