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.