Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Don't blame the 'white trash'

The Abu Ghraib torturers are vile, but they are being scapegoated for crimes that are the fruit of occupation

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


Two young women have achieved iconic status in US President George W. Bush's battle between good and evil currently touring Iraq. And if the administration's propaganda machine is to be believed, one is good and the other is evil.

One the side of good there is Jessica Lynch. When we first met her, in April last year, she was the plucky soldier who had been captured after a "valiant gunfight," slapped around and then rescued on camera in a "midnight ballet" by a daring posse.

Representing evil is Lynndie England. When we first met her she was smoking a cigarette and giving a thumbs-up while pointing at the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi prisoner. She appears to be laughing; he appears to be masturbating.

Lynch was lauded as a national hero; England has been lambasted as a national disgrace. While no one has yet to describe England as the anti-Christ they have come close.

In the words of one of her neighbors, she is the "anti-Jessica."

Lynch and England are real people -- both young working-class women from West Virginia, one of the poorest US states. But in the hands of the Pentagon spinmeisters they are also constructs, rooted in gender and class. Lynch, we now know, never fired a shot and was well cared for while held captive.

Of the Pentagon's spin machine she complained: "They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff ... I'm not about to take credit for something I didn't do."

Precisely the same is happening to England and, to a lesser extent, the other soldiers who have been court-martialled as a result of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. They are being used to symbolize not all that is wrong with the war, but the only thing that is wrong with it.

While all the evidence, including new allegations that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized physical coercion and sexual humiliation in Iraqi prisons, points to the American political establishment's active encouragement of the abuse, the White House keeps pointing at England and her six colleagues to bear the moral burden for their immoral war.

England's brutality is explained away not as the logical continuum of the occupation, but as a contradiction to it. Increasingly, Bush's best hope is to take out the "trailer trash." They have cast not only the actions as disgraceful but the people accused of carrying them out as dispensable -- collateral damage in the propaganda war at home, where the poor don't vote or contribute to campaigns.

When Bush went on Arab television two weeks ago, he said the behavior "does not represent the America that I know." But then, thanks to his connections, he has never had to serve in the army during a war.

And England and her friends were never going to pledge for the Skull and Cross Bones, the elite fraternity to which both Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry belonged at Yale. They are neither wealthy nor well connected -- he doesn't need to know them, although the irony is that if they did vote they would probably vote for him.

So long as the buck stops with England and her colleagues, the whole episode can be reduced to soccer hooligans in uniform -- the white working class (one African-American is accused, although he is featured rarely and appears in no photographs) running amok. Like arresting the Watergate burglars and leaving former president Richard Nixon in the White House, convicting only them would suggest the abuse can be understood as the sporadic acts of a few offensive individuals. The higher up it goes, the clearer it becomes that they were in fact the systemic actions of an occupying institution.

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