House of Horrors

Last April, American troops helped Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad.

That statue was only a symbol, but it was an important symbol. Its fall — an image broadcast around the world — signified the fall of Saddam's tyrannical reign. Other statues were soon torn down and American troops were busied tearing down other such symbols of the hated regime, including the omnipresent posters and murals of Saddam throughout the capital.

But some symbols remained. Among them was Abu Ghraib — the fearful prison where enemies of Saddam's regime had been taken to be tortured and disappeared. Abu Ghraib was a symbol far more important — more significant in every sense — than the statue in Firdos Square.

It should have been razed, torn down so that no two stones were left standing and the ghosts that haunt it could be put to rest.

The notion of a literal haunting is superstitious and irrational. Yet the idea persists. We tell stories of haunted places — places where the shadows of past evils linger — because these stories convey some truths that transcend mere superstition.

Saddam's Abu Ghraib was a house of horrors and perhaps the single most powerful symbol of his tyrannical regime. Yet it remains intact and in use because, for all the death, pain and terror its walls have housed, it remains a useful facility. The occupying powers of the U.S.-led coalition had need of a prison and Abu Ghraib proved too useful to destroy. The benefit of such a ready facility was considered greater than the merely symbolic benefit of destroying it and salting the earth where it stood.

"The coalition authorities had the floors tiled, cells cleaned and repaired, and toilets, showers, and a new medical center added," Seymour Hersh reports. "Abu Ghraib was now a U.S. military prison."

Thanks to the hard work of coalition contractors, the useful facility was made even more useful, more modern and more efficient. The coalition's cleansing of Abu Ghraib involved the work of carpenters, plumbers and painters. It should also have included the work of priests.

The house of horrors has a fresh coat of paint, but it remains a haunted place.

The danger of superstitious tales of haunted houses is that they can be used to mask the moral agency of the people involved. Saddam and his followers should not be allowed to escape responsibility for the evils they ordered and carried out within the evil walls of Abu Ghraib. Nor should its current overlords.

The "superstitious" idea that the prison is an evil, haunted place does not excuse them for the deeds done there any more than they are excused by a "rational," utilitarian calculus that this house of horrors can now be employed for some greater good.

Abu Ghraib is an unholy place. It is a house of horrors whose only facility is in allowing such horrors to continue.

Burn it down. Burn it down until nothing is left.

UPDATE: Patrick Nielsen Hayden has an excellent roundup of blogging on Abu Ghraib.

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  • asdf

    well said, Fred.
    I don’t have the link right now, but I remember reading somewhere that the Firdos square situation was staged for the cameras.

  • Scorpio

    My absolutely first reaction (blogged 4/29) was raze Abu Ghraib and pave it over.
    Like you, I thought of evil hauntings, and I decided not to talk about them; because evil aura of holy aura, none of that matters beside the actions of the people on the scene. One can yield or one can overcome.
    Chalking it up to haunting is tempting, but it is wrong. These people did things that their civilian jobs would have jailed them for many times over.
    Nevertheless — raze the place and pave it over. No one needs a jail *that* much.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    It’s possible that the Iraqis will want to keep Al Graib as a memorial, in which case razing it would be presumptuous.

  • Sandals

    One thing to note is that Abu Ghraib has been seized on as a symbol, but that much of the abuse and prison problems are spread through Iraq. The situation is so bad that corrupt Iraqi guards pass weapons to inmates and help them escape, and people are even escaping from the “High Value Detainee” camp. Abu Ghraib is particularly notable for not having any sort of accurate headcount procedure.

  • mecki

    I think it would have made more sense to open it up as a museum, a museum of the murderous aspects of the Hussein regime. But it’s too late for that now, I guess.
    I am reminded of the concentration camps, especially Sachsenhausen, which was immediately turned into a Soviet prison camp after the fall of the third reich. It is now a museum, and it is absolutely harrowing.
    The east germans – after the soviets were done with it – turned it into a museum, mainly highlighting the communists who died there. After reunification, one room was added to the museum, in which the use of the place by the soviets was shown.
    I’m not sure what the point of my comment is. Sorry about rambling.

  • bellatrys

    Given what was happening to those people, and why many of them were in there, that the Taguba report says that most of them weren’t dangerous or guilty of anything, and that Karpinski wanted them out but her boss couldn’t be bothered to process them –
    I don’t think *we* should be calling the Iraqi guards “corrupt” for trying to get their kinsmen out.
    Particularly when only one US soldier – a low ranking footsoldier, mind you, not an officer with ethics training – had the conscience to blow the whistle.
    I’ve been reading the Taguba report. I’d say we were running a banana republic stockade there, that only whistle-blowing would have ended, but that might be an insult to real banana republics.
    (I particularly like the euphemism for raping a prisoner: “had sex with a female detainee” – “She asked for it, really!”)

  • Lisa

    If we had been smart, the U.S. would have kept the prison untouched and let Iraqis tour it as a reminder of what the invasion had put to an end. That we didn’t is just one more example of our utter lack of preparation for invading and administering Iraq. Can’t we build our own prisons? We did in Guantanamo…

  • Michael

    The occupying powers of the U.S.-led coalition had need of a prison and Abu Ghraib proved too useful to destroy. The benefit of such a ready facility was considered greater than the merely symbolic benefit of destroying it and salting the earth where it stood.I can’t persuade myself that there was no attention on the part of coalition security to the symbolic aspect of Abu Ghraib. It seems to me that symbolism was precisely one of its uses: don’t think, Iraqis, we won’t be every bit as tough as Saddam when it counts.Worse, almost, than any incidents of torture is the thought that we took over an Iraqi gulag (16 prisons, by the Washington Post’s count, plus who knows how many ad-hoc holding cells) and implemented a system of widespread, arbitrary detention as a matter of policy. And I predict that that’s what we’re going to find, when all this has settled out, that torture of prisoners was simply an outrgrowth, illegal but logical, of our security policy in Iraq.Incidentally, I had the same “raze-it-and-salt-the-earth-underneath” reaction you did, Fred, at Reading A1.

  • Mike

    Well said, Fred.

  • abu ghraib

    Read what Fred Clark has to say about this house of horrors.