Abu Ghraib Reveals the Monster In All of Us

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Those notorious Abu Ghraib photos evoke all manner of emotions, and I've run the spectrum. But somehow, I also find in them a startling ray of insight about Russia.

My wife and I now vet the morning newspaper before it hits the kitchen table; like parents across the United States, we've spent this spring poised to change the channel lest our children be confronted with yet another tableau of grinning U.S. soldiers displaying piles of naked Iraqis.

I've tried to remember the last time a news photo hit me with such force. As an editor and reporter, I figure I've cast a critical eye over roughly half a million news photos.

Was there ever anything in my lifetime like Abu Ghraib?

Yes. Four years ago, Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky was dragged into Chernokozovo, a detention center north of Grozny. He lived to tell of beatings and tortures there. Soon, the foreign press corps was on a Kremlin-sponsored field trip to the camp, with its freshly painted walls and freshly emptied cells.

As a Kremlin bus plowed through Chechen women at the prison gates, all waiting to tell their stories, the women shrieked and pounded on the bus. One powerful photo looks at them via the sideview mirror reflection as they do so.

Looking for the photo on the Internet, I instead came across the ironies of four-year-old news writing. Consider Reuters, which quoted a general at Chernokozovo bragging: "We've done all this remodeling. Soon this will look like a regular American-style jail."

That was a journalist's wink at Russian pomposity. But post-Abu Ghraib, the bitter laugh is at U.S. expense.

Expats in Russia were often exasperated by the average Russian's nonthinking about events in Chechnya. Each year brought overwhelming, mutually corroborating evidence that Russian forces had engaged in years of torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Yet from President Vladimir Putin on down, no one ever seemed even slightly concerned by Chernokozovo and its like.

I used to take this as saying something important about Russians. From the sports bars to the foreign affairs journals, my fellow expats agreed, shaking their heads at the apathy -- at what the philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev called his countrymen's "stately gift for submissiveness."

Then came Operation Iraqi Freedom. My government has reprised every mistake, every crime, of Chechnya. The current standards of timidity and gullibility in the American press, which was so enterprising in sarcastically deconstructing Chernokozovo, recall the coverage served up by Russian state television. The U.S. administration's archipelago of torture, from Kabul to Cuba, was documented long ago. It was all willfully ignored -- until the photos surfaced. Even now, the vexing paradox of the unending Abu Ghraib coverage is how much of it is empty of content.

So it turns out that Americans -- affluent, free, served by entrenched democratic institutions -- can behave as monstrously as Russians in Chechnya. Does this then make the worst Russian behavior in Chechnya less uniquely monstrous? It's still monstrous, of course. We're talking about de facto state-sanctioned rape and murder, of killing children with bombs. But Abu Ghraib reminds a Chechnya-obsessed American that the Russians aren't unusually predisposed to be monsters. It turns out that each of us is so predisposed. Maybe it's not such a startling insight after all.

Note: This will be my last Moscow Times column. For me it ends an 11-year association with the newspaper. It's been an honor. Thanks for reading.

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.