the element of crime



Chicago, Friday, November 1, 2002


It had to be spectacular, like a grandiose spectacle that no one else had staged before in world history, and that not even the quintessential totalitarian states could have dreamed of. It was, of course, all macabre symbolism, one that might give some thought as to where the Middle East is heading in that 21st century.


On Tuesday, October 15, the 11.4 million Iraqi eligible voters (out of a population of 20 to 22 million) had voted “unanimously” for their one and only one leader who was the only available candidate. Many had voted with their own blood at the sight of the numerous video cameras of foreign and local reporters, all of which dispatched from all over the world to witness “live” that highly expected American surgical operation. In the meantime those reporters and photographers are having a glimpse as to what life looks like in that part of the world. They did not realize that once the “election” was over the best was yet to come. To begin, the Iraqis voted unanimously for their leader, meaning that this time the old taboo of 99.99%—a norm in Arab politics—has finally been transcended. We’re now—thanks God—right into the 100%, a record high. (By comparison, in neighboring Syria Asad-the-son received only 97% of the votes back on July 2000: he should be ashamed of himself.) That not a single person said “no” is, by all standards, remarkable—not even the mentally retarded, the handicapped, the illiterates, and all those who, because of their madness, would have perceived the whole episode as a pure Freudian phantasm. Even Orwell would not have dared to imagine a situation without a single dissenter.


But there was more to come. On Saturday evening, October 19, a presidential decree emanating from that only one ruler who just got 100% of the votes a couple of days ago, provided an amnesty for the 100,000 to 150,000 prisoners incarcerated in the Iraqi jails. All should be out at once, including the so-called political prisoners, but at the exclusion of individuals who had debts to pay to their lenders (including blood money payments). In the final analysis, it does seem that they were all released.


It happened all of a sudden, without any apologies, preparations, or even the minimal organization that would have ensured that such a large number of inmates would not kill one another while attempting to go through their prison doors. Indeed, those doors had to be smashed, and even the walls had to be torn apart—by the inmates themselves. The following day after the amnesty decree, on Sunday, October 20, reporters were brought 20 miles west of Baghdad to Abu Ghraib, Iraq’s most notorious prison, to witness, as they were told, an extraordinary event. But what they saw was surreal. Tens of thousands of prisoners, helped by relatives who had gathered around the prison since early morning, stormed out of their cells to freedom. The gates were forced open and the mob stormed the cellblocks, liberating as many as 10,000 captives. Soon, stampedes at the major gates blocked the flow of inmates, and in the confusion, there was no way to count the dozens of dead and injured. Some relatives rushed to the cellblocks only to find that their beloved had suffocated while attempting to get out.


The Iraqi dictator must have realized that keeping such a large inmate population lost its purpose. The original decree specified that committees of judges would have 48 hours to rule on individual releases, excepting only “Zionist and American spies,” murderers who have not settled the “blood money” owed to victims’ families under Islamic law, and debtors who have not satisfied their creditors. But that’s a system notorious for its impatience with “due process,” and hence in the big rush everyone seems to have been released amid a general loss of control by the guards and authorities: spies, murderers and rapists, thieves, debtors, and, last but not least, political prisoners, were all out. It must be that there was no point in keeping anyone in anymore, but why exactly? What if the “internal” world of the prison cell stopped looking that different from the “outside”? The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard once noted that Disneyland is needed to differentiate between what is “real” and its faked reproduction. Similarly, the logic of incarceration establishes a divide between the artificial world of the prison cell and the real world out there. But for that distinction to endure, those on the “inside” must be perceived as “outlaws,” or as having transgressed the “bounds of reason,” to use an old Kantian metaphor.


The Iraqi inmates had lost their “individuality” a long time ago. Not only “due process” is for all purposes absent, but the brutality of the prison cell transforms individuals into mobs. Those mobs that stormed out of their cellblocks were in effect no different from those relatives waiting for them. Some of them described the event like “storming the Bastille.” The analogy would hold were it not for the fact that the Bastille was empty when stormed and then destroyed by the “revolutionary citizens.” The decision to storm Abu Ghraib looks as if decided by Saddam Husayn himself. Not that there was any conspiracy from his part, but it was his decision to blur the lines and let all inmates go. Thus, the “storming of the Bastille” in this case did not entail any new notion of state and society, of due process and individual rights. Dictators at times have a macabre sense of humor, and Saddam Husayn has in effect thrown a provocation to the rest of the Arab world: Why don’t we all free our inmates, considering that the distinction between inside and outside doesn’t make much sense anymore?


The norm of “Arabism,” which has regulated pan Arab affairs since the demise of the Ottomans, has been already violated twice last month. First, the 99.99% norm has been superseded by the 100% rule of confidence: if it took that long to close that thin 0.01% margin it’s because it was thought that people have, in the final analysis, some right to simply say no. By trespassing that rule Saddam Husayn plays on the absurdity of the 99.99%. Second, the prisoners amnesty revealed that there was no need to keep an inmate population locked anymore: the entire Arab world is ruled by mobs rather than by citizens with an agency. The rulers themselves behave like mobs waiting to be executed.


Even so-called political prisoners, for which Amnesty International has scrupulously kept a large database, have lost their appeal. At the Special Judgement Block, home to political prisoners, inmates slowly filed out one by one. A Kurd who had fled military service, now spared six years of his seven years sentence; a Baghdadi businessman sentenced to life for counterfeiting Iraqi dinars; and a meek cartoonist, who had fled to Jordan to seek refugee status, only to find himself handed back to Iraq. His first request was for a pen. He had shared his cell block with 15 other journalists, together with rebel army officers and former agents of the exiled opposition. Pencils and books were not allowed.


Even when we listen to such stories, we cannot but feel that the era of political prisoners is over and that they’ve ceased to create the impact that they once did. Not that their acts are not heroic anymore, but the sheer indifference to politics has made such prisoners of conscience redundant. Hence the Machiavellian intelligence of a Saddam Husayn: let’s release them!


Tariq Aziz, a Christian and deputy prime minister, and a long survivor of the regime, likened the Iraqi leader’s capacity for forgiveness to Jesus. But what if the Iraqi leader is not forgiving anyone and simply playing on symbols and norms?


On Tuesday, October 22, a group of distraught relatives of prisoners staged an unprecedented demonstration outside the ministry of information, demanding to know where their family members were. Such a hostile demonstration would have been unthinkable even a year ago, but now that all lines are blurred dissidents are at home with the rest of the population and the regime itself.


On Monday, October 21, cleaners were at work sweeping up at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where human rights groups say hundreds of prisoners were killed in a “prison cleansing” in 1998. Now that there are no more inmates the cleaners joked at the possibility of losing their job. Iraq without prisons! The perfect utopia.


Death row was deserted, as were the quarters housing political prisoners.


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copyright © 2002, zouhair ghazzal