Abu Ghraib and the mirror

All Americans celebrate the recent Iraqi election - the images of the long lines at polling sites were truly thrilling - and we hope these newcomers to democracy can solidify our historic reality.

But there is another set of images and another reality - moral - that haunts still: Abu Ghraib. While the administration may hope nothing succeeds like success, and President Bush declared his own reelection an "accountability moment" on Iraq, political victory does not trump moral stain.

The question remains: How could any of our soldiers - defenders and deliverers of the American ideal of human dignity - torture and sexually humiliate prisoners in their custody and laugh about it? (Most of these prisoners, reports the International Red Cross, were innocent.) Equally shameful is the failure to establish command accountability, military or political, for our use of torture not only at Abu Ghraib, but generally.

While we continue to press for the full accountability to be expected of a "moral values" administration, there is something else to consider: our own role. That's because by creating an environment that could produce troops who torture and find it amusing, it's valid also to seek a public accountability.

Can we deny that those searing images - of prisoners stripped naked, cowering at dogs, forced to simulate sex - are echoed in the pornographic mix of raunch and violence of much of our own "cultural" fare? Scan the TV, movies, music stations, video games, advertising - and you'll find a brutality in sensibility differing from Abu Ghraib only in degree, not kind.

It's all the same slippery slope, and at Abu Ghraib we slipped - badly. And to those claiming such fare is "only entertainment," so much the worse. That the Sopranos' "whackings" are meant to entertain explains the especially squirm-inducing aspect of the Abu Ghraib photos. As the lead investigator of the courts-martial said, "They didn't think it was that big a deal, they were just joking around."

But it is a "big deal" - as our own outcry drove home when those photos hit our consciousness. Recall that thunderous outcry. Instantly we saw what the "jokers" could not: They'd crossed the line between human and inhuman. In this sorry affair, that outcry was a proud moment for Americans: It confirmed an intact moral compass.

Guided by that compass, we need to connect outcry to responsibility. This entails looking in the mirror, because our cultural environment - from which the Abu Ghraib abusers hail - is created, sustained, and capitalized by us. How?

In our market culture, we the consumers are king. Whatever the king wants sets up a chain of demand, and while occasionally we want Mozart, the bank says we want raunch and violence more. To accommodate us, producers push "the edge," creating context in which "human" means not character but kink. Add to this burlesque the imprimatur of critics who praise things "bent" and "twisted" - and no wonder an Abu Ghraib can occur.

This downward trend, in place pre-9/11, has accelerated since then, fueled by a need for distraction in a new age of terrorism. Sad to recall that, on that September day, in our grief we glimpsed our better selves. What a falling-off; it's been torture to watch.

How to counter this decline? Ideally, artists, the designated humanists, would create a new Renaissance. Three years on, it hasn't happened; it may yet, but art takes time. Meanwhile, except for a few voices, where were these humanists to protest the abject human depredation of Abu Ghraib? That many artists peddle edgy antihuman product may explain their silence. One can't create kink and protest it.

Best if we citizens consult our own counsel: our thunderous outcry at Abu Ghraib, an outcry, however, that has since abated. We might redirect that same moral sense to our own cultural choices, specifically the "guilty pleasures" of splatter films, whackings, and pornography. Because - as with Abu Ghraib - our choices can lead, via the multiplier effect, to the degradation of others, and ourselves.

So turn the dial, spurn the movie, and, in the time freed up, protest the trash. Doing so, we signal producers that we want core, not edge. Commentators note that Iraqis must now consider how to use their freedom. The same goes for Americans.

This is not a call for censorship - free speech is vital - but elevated choice. It's all about choice. And in our choices, we reveal who we really are.

Right now, though, we reveal ourselves as compromised. In the matter of brutality and our own accountability, how can we be entertained privately by what we abhor publicly?

We need to get out of prison ourselves.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of 'The Washington-Sarajevo Talks' and is at work on a new play, 'Prodigal.'

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