The heated charge that prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib by U.S. service personnel was somehow equivalent to that perpetrated by Saddam Hussein – a notion pervasive in the Muslim world and epitomized in the West by Sen. Edward Kennedy’s remark that “we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management” – has had ice-cold water dumped on it by a horrific new video.
Screened for reporters last week by Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, the 4-plus-minute video clip, reportedly obtained from the Pentagon, captures the routine beating, torture, dismemberment and decapitation that occurred daily at the hands of Saddam’s henchmen.
However, only a handful of reporters showed up to see the new video, and even fewer reported on it.
One journalist present was New York Post’s Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin, who wrote of “savage scenes of decapitation, fingers chopped off one by one, tongues hacked out with a razor blade – all while victims shriek in pain and the thugs chant Saddam’s praises.”
Iraqi prisoner beaten by Saddam’s torturers (AEI video)
Noting that “Saddam’s henchmen took the videos as newsreels to document their deeds in honor of their leader,” Orin added, “but these awful images didn’t show up on American TV news.”
In fact, Orin mulled, why did no U.S. media “air the videos of Nick Berg and Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl getting decapitated, or of U.S. contractors in Fallujah getting torn limb from limb by al-Qaida operatives,” and yet gave saturation coverage, including endless photos, of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib.
For that matter, why did no U.S. media air images of American hostage Paul M. Johnson Jr. being beheaded earlier this week by his terrorist captors in Saudi Arabia?
“Because most [journalists] want Bush to lose,” AEI scholar Michael Ledeen, who helped put on the video screening event, told Orin.
The sustained fever-pitch publicity over the abuses at Abu Ghraib has included only occasional oblique references to what transpired at the prison under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Saddam’s henchmen amputating fingers of Iraqi victim (AEI video)
“Under Saddam Hussein,” the AEI website said of Abu Ghraib, “some thirty thousand people were executed there, and countless more were tortured and mutilated, returning to Iraqi society as visible evidence of the brutality of Baathist rule instead of being lost to the anonymity of mass graves.”
Amputation complete (AEI video)
Present at the screening event were four victims of Saddam’s torture. They, along with three other merchants living and working in Baghdad, each had their right hands amputated during Saddam’s reign. Fortunately, all seven came to the United States for medical attention and received state-of-the-art prosthetic hands. Four of them spoke at the AEI event, alongside the screening of the video documenting Saddam’s horrors.
Culture of torture
Putting the U.S. military’s abuses of Abu Ghraib into better context is a recent document from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Here’s what the official December 2002 report said about the scope and extent of Saddam’s abuse of Iraq’s population.
“In 1979, immediately upon coming to power, Saddam Hussein silenced all political opposition in Iraq and converted his one-party state into a cult of personality. Over the more than 20 years since then, his regime has systematically executed, tortured, imprisoned, raped, terrorized and repressed Iraqi people. Iraq is a nation rich in culture with a long history of intellectual and scientific achievement. Yet Saddam Hussein has silenced its scholars and doctors, as well as its women and children.
“Iraqi dissidents are tortured, killed or disappear in order to deter other Iraqi citizens from speaking out against the government or demanding change. A system of collective punishment tortures entire families or ethnic groups for the acts of one dissident. Women are raped and often videotaped during rape to blackmail their families. Citizens are publicly beheaded, and their families are required to display the heads of the deceased as a warning to others who might question the politics of this regime.
“Saddam Hussein was also the first leader to use chemical weapons against his own population, silencing more than 60 villages and 30,000 citizens with poisonous gas. Between 1983 and 1988 alone, he murdered more than 30,000 Iraqi citizens with mustard gas and nerve agents. Several international organizations claim that he killed more than 60,000 Iraqi citizens with chemicals, including large numbers of women and children.”
‘Hopelessness, sadness and fear’
“The Iraqi people are not allowed to vote to remove the government,” said the State Department report. (In the last election, there was one candidate. The ballot said “Saddam Hussein: Yes or No?” Each ballot was numbered so any no votes could be traced to the unfortunate voter, who would disappear forever. Saddam got 100 percent of the vote.)
“Freedom of expression, association and movement do not exist in Iraq. The media is tightly controlled – Saddam Hussein’s son owns the daily Iraqi newspaper. Iraqi citizens cannot assemble except in support of the government. Iraqi citizens cannot freely leave Iraq.”
Safia Al Souhail, an Iraqi citizen and advocacy director of the International Alliance for Justice, described daily reality during Saddam’s reign this way:
“Iraq under Saddam’s regime has become a land of hopelessness, sadness and fear. A country where people are ethnically cleansed; prisoners are tortured in more than 300 prisons in Iraq. Rape is systematic … congenital malformation, birth defects, infertility, cancer and various disorders are the results of Saddam’s gassing of his own people … the killing and torturing of husbands in front of their wives and children … Iraq under Saddam has become a hell and a museum of crimes.”
The State Department report continues: “Under Saddam Hussein’s orders, the security apparatus in Iraq routinely and systematically tortures its citizens. Beatings, rape, breaking of limbs and denial of food and water are commonplace in Iraqi detention centers. Saddam Hussein’s regime has also invented unique and horrific methods of torture including electric shocks to a male’s genitals, pulling out fingernails, suspending individuals from rotating ceiling fans, dripping acid on a victim’s skin, gouging out eyes, and burning victims with a hot iron or blowtorch.”
Why didn’t more Iraqis complain? Possibly because of Saddam’s decree in 2000 authorizing the government to amputate the tongues of citizens who criticize him or his government. The AEI video depicts one such tongue amputation, using a razor blade while the tongue is held with tweezers.
The following, according to the State Department report, were routine in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule:
- Medical experimentation
- Hammering nails into the fingers and hands
- Amputating sex organs or breasts with an electric carving knife
- Spraying insecticides into a victim’s eyes
- Branding with a hot iron
- Committing rape while the victim’s spouse is forced to watch
- Pouring boiling water into the victim’s rectum
- Nailing the tongue to a wooden board
- Extracting teeth with pliers
- Using bees and scorpions to sting naked children in front of their parents
Saddam also routinely tortured and murdered women. The daily newspaper “Babel,” owned by Uday, Hussein’s eldest son, contained a public admission on Feb. 13, 2001 of beheading women who were suspected of prostitution.
The Iraqi Women’s League in Damascus, Syria, described this practice as follows: “Under the pretext of fighting prostitution, units of ‘Feda’iyee Saddam,’ the paramilitary organization led by Uday, have beheaded in public more than 200 women all over the country, dumping their severed heads at their families’ doorsteps. Many of the victims were innocent professional women, including some who were suspected of being dissidents.”
‘Too awful to show’
Why, asks Orin, does the world see “photos of U.S. interrogators using dogs to scare prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but not the footage of Saddam’s prisoners getting fed – alive – to Doberman pinschers on Saddam’s watch”?
Besides the obvious role of partisan politics in an election year, Orin points to another factor: the fact that Saddam’s tortures, like al-Qaida’s, are so horrible that they’re unbearable to watch, almost too atrocious to describe in words.
But the result of this, notes Orin, is that the media’s unbalanced coverage is “worse than creating moral equivalence between Saddam’s tortures and prisoner abuse by U.S. troops. It’s that we do far more to highlight our own wrongdoings precisely because they are less appalling. …
“We highlight U.S. prisoner abuse because the photos aren’t too offensive to show. We downplay Saddam’s abuse precisely because it’s far worse – so we can’t use the photos. And that sets the stage for remarks like Sen. Ted Kennedy’s claim that Saddam’s torture chambers have reopened under ‘U.S. management.’”
Friday, Kennedy and others who morally equate U.S. leadership with Saddam Hussein were joined by one more superstar – pop music icon Madonna – who declared that President Bush and Saddam “are both behaving in an irresponsible manner.”
“Reporters,” concludes Orin, “have to face up to the fact that right now, if we highlight the wrongs that Americans commit but not – out of squeamishness – the far worse horrors committed by others, we become propaganda tools for the other side.”