The America We Know


Speaking on Arab television immediately after he viewed the photographs of
American soldiers posed confidently with their abused and sexually
humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib, President Bush remarked that the
situation captured by the pictures "does not represent the America that I

Amidst the hedged apologies that followed from President Bush, Secretary
Rumsfeld, and other members of the Bush cabinet for the humiliating
treatment, indeed the torture, of Iraqi prisoners is the notion that this
treatment does not represent the real America; that it is, in fact, the
anomalous behavior of a few misfits.

But, in the face of these assertions of a fundamental American good will or
innocence, our history tells us that violence against those who stand in
our way or are perceived to so stand is as American as apple pie and that a
president who does not know or is unwilling to publicly admit the actual
history of his country is a president who is fundamentally incapable of
dealing with the political complexities of a world where those who do not
know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

In point of fact, the atrocities that took place in Abu Ghraib Prison are
part of an ongoing history of such violence effected by the U.S. both at
home and abroad. Here are some telling snapshots from the family album of
that history.

Testimony stemming from the massacre by a military force led by Colonel
J.M. Chivington of a camp of peaceful Cheyenne Indians on Nov. 29, 1864 at
Sand Creek, Colo., bears witness to the pornographic mutilation of women
and children by U.S. soldiers. In "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", Dee
Brown quotes Lieutenant James Connor whose testimony is in the records of
the 39th Congress: "In going over the battleground the next day I did not
see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances
their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner - men, women, and
children's privates cut out ... I also heard of numerous instances in which
men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the
saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks."

Such incidents prove to have been the rule not the exception in the U.S.
wars against the Indians, just as accounts of the Vietnam War increasingly
suggest that the My Lai massacre was also not the exception but the rule.
In his testimony before Congress, Secretary Rumsfeld intimated that the
country would be seeing a lot more photographs of the obscene kind we have
been witnessing from Abu Ghraib Prison, which combine violence with
prurience; and since that testimony, more photographs have been released.
That American troops referred to the battle zones of Vietnam as "Indian
country," a name retained for enemy territory in Iraq as well, points to
the routine continuation of a violent U.S history into the present.

But nothing, perhaps, captures the everyday quality of U.S. violence more
than the postcards of the lynching of African Americans manufactured en
masse in the post-Reconstruction period for sale to the public and
collected in the present by James Allen to jar our historical memory
(; and the book "Without Sanctuary:
Lynching Photography in America", ed. by James Allen). What is most
chilling about this evidence of the casualness and ubiquity of U.S.
violence is the summer-outing atmosphere that some of these lynchings
attracted, with families in their Sunday-best smiling at the camera, while
above them a human being hangs sexually mutilated in the trees.

Such innocent American faces juxtaposed to the violence in which they are
involved recalls the smiling faces of the soldiers obscenely posed with
their Iraqi prisoners. The president will have a difficult time
categorizing the photographs from Abu Ghraib as historical anomalies in
light of these grim souvenirs from a past that is clearly still with us.

But this is to underestimate both the president's and the country's powers
of denial. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations, Bush boasted
defensively that the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is
that when atrocities are committed in the former they come to light and are
subject to law. But if this is true, we might ask the question: What
difference does it make? Congress held hearings on the Sand Creek massacre;
Chivington was censured but not punished; and though his reputation was
ruined (see Indian Country Today on-line, "Sand Creek returned to rightful
owners", posted May 6, 2002), accountability stopped there; and military
massacres of Indians continued. Black Kettle, who escaped from Sand Creek,
was murdered by Custer and his Seventh Cavalry at the massacre of the
Washita on Nov. 27, 1868.

Similarly, the official investigation into our murderous military policy in
Vietnam stopped with the court martial of Lieutenant Calley for his part in
the My Lai massacre. And already it looks like the buck will stop with the
foot soldiers for the torture at Abu Ghraib, while Rumsfeld and his
generals continue to dictate U.S. military policy in Iraq.

Deadly policy can happen and continue to happen in a democracy precisely
because democracy itself can become the alibi for atrocities.

But there is a question whether we live in a democracy in any event.
Certainly, though the U.S. has thoroughly conflated the two terms,
capitalism is not democracy, by the very fact that for the majority of the
people in the world capitalism has been and continues to be an engine of
dispossession. And here in the U.S. the two parties increasingly look like
one, certainly in terms of foreign policy and increasingly in terms of
domestic policy as well. We are at war in Iraq and subject to the Patriot
Act because Congress, including John Kerry, supported and continues to
support both measures. And it was during the Clinton administration that
the word "poverty" disappeared from the domestic policy statements of the

Whatever political regime we are living currently in the U.S., and I would
say it is an oligarchy but call it a democracy if you wish, it is clearly
not a regime that is in the service of life, in the service, that is, of
kinship with the whole living world or, to use a word at the center of
Navajo philosophy that translates this notion of kinship, of hozho. If we
are living in a democracy, what use is it if the terms of the debate do not
provide life-sustaining alternatives but always return us to the same
destructive institutions, tinkered with but never transformed, those that
have produced and will produce again all too familiar photographs like
those from Abu Ghraib.