How We Betrayed Our Own History in Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Melancon is Associate Professor of History, Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

The scenes of torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib illustrate why the Enlightenment is so important to the history of the West.  A small group of intellectuals dared to challenge" common sense" notions of security, arguing that limiting the arbitrary power of government creates a safer society.  Since the American and French revolutions, westerners have struggled to rein in the violence of the state.  The philosophes insisted that the state act in a measured, rational manner.  They realized, however, that individual humans could not be trusted to restrain themselves and that society needed to create systems to check the power of the government.  The American prison system in Iraq violated all of the principles of an enlightened government.

One of the most important checks on the government was a revolutionary judicial system.  In the old system government officials could imprison and torture a person based upon suspicion.  The pre-Enlightenment governments knew the answer to a question and could use any means necessary to demonstrate the truth.  Caesar Beccaria in Crime and Punishment (1764) argued that punishment comes after, not before, conviction of a crime.  Conviction rested upon independently verifiable facts. "When the proofs of a crime are dependent on each other, that is, when the evidence of each witness, taken separately, proves nothing, or when all the proofs are dependent upon one . . . they all fall to the ground."  Imprisonment should not be used to prove a crime rather it is used as punishment for demonstrable crimes.  Furthermore, the U.S. Defense Department has designed a prison system in Iraq designed to cause the inmates to fear their guards.  Beccaria also cautions against this type of justice: "The fear of the laws is salutary, but the fear of men is a fruitful and fatal source of crimes. Men enslaved are more voluptuous, more debauched, and more cruel than those who are in a state of freedom."

Another key principle of the Enlightenment was the idea that government was a res publica, a"public thing."  Monarchs and aristocrats argued, on the other hand, that affairs of state were a private matter.  The security of the state required trials and deliberations to be held behind closed doors.  Secrecy, however, invites abuse of power.  The"Shock and Awe" generated by the Abu Ghraib pictures would have been avoided in a more open system.  Obviously, the public does not need to know the specifics of each case, but it should know what the U.S. government does in the name of the people.  Beccaria went farther and described the results of secret accusations on the community under investigation:

Secret accusations are a manifest abuse, but consecrated by custom in many nations, where, from the weakness of the government, they are necessary. This custom makes men false and treacherous. Whoever suspects another to be an informer, beholds in him an enemy; and from thence mankind are accustomed to disguise their real sentiments; and, from the habit of concealing them from others, they at last even hide them from themselves. Unhappy are those who have arrived at this point! without any certain and fixed principles to guide them, they fluctuate in the vast sea of opinion, and are busied only in escaping the monsters which surround them: to those the present is always embittered by the uncertainty of the future; deprived of the pleasures of tranquillity and security, some fleeting moments of happiness, scattered thinly through their wretched lives, console them for the misery of existing.
Secret judicial proceedings thus destroy the very nature of civil society, namely the public trust and confidence that is necessary for happiness.

Finally, Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), argued that tyranny arose from a concentration of powers:"there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor." 

The cause of liberty thus requires a separation of powers, and western citizens have demand constitutions which eliminate the potential for abuse.  The war on terror has reinvigorated the pre-modern notion that government officials have the authority to arrest, detain and punish individuals without outside oversight.  As the U.S. government made clear in the recent cases before the Supreme Court, not only are suspected terrorists held solely on the authority of one branch of government, but there is no review process within that branch.  Individuals are not allowed to argue their innocence with or without the aid of counsel. Those same counselors, however, might have acted as a deterrent to the abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners and spared the United States the shame of recent weeks.

The American"justice" system in Iraq then undermines the very goal of the mission. The United States wants to demonstrate to the world that its system of government is better than all others. How can this claim be tested when the United States refuses to abide by the foundations of that system: the assumption of innocence, an open justice system and outside checks on power?  Some will argue that my position is naive; the war on terror cannot be fought with such limitations.  I would point out that monarchs and tyrants use the same arguments to justify their disrespect for human rights.  I would also ask: if the war in Iraq cannot be fought while respecting the principles of an enlightened government, how can such a"messy" war establish a democracy in the cradle of civilization?