Jocasta and the Lieutenant General

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In the June 25, 2007 edition of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reports on the report General Taguba filed chronicling the “systematic and illegal abuse” of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison and its initial reception at the Pentagon. Soon after the first complaints of abuses, Hersh reports that Joseph Darby, a military policeman gave the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division a CD full of images of abuse and a video. Taguba himself reported that “he saw ‘a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee.'”
One need not watch this video to apprehend the profound significance of this event and the troubling symbolism of the image: an American soldier, clothed in the uniform of American hegemonic authority, sodomizing a female prisoner. If it would not do violence to the horrible suffering of that singular female prisoner, it would not be difficult to see this image as a symbol of the profound American failure to date in Iraq.
What is more troubling still is our unwillingness, still today, to deal with the truth of this image. We remain like the lieutenant general of which Taguba speaks who, when urged to look at the photographs, responds “I don’t want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?”
This unwillingness to look as a response to a horror that has already taken root in one’s consciousness is, in fact, a time honored human tactic of delusion. In Oedipus the King, Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother and wife, has a similar response as she begins to recognize the horrible truth of her life–that she has married and bore children to her own son. She tells Oedipus, who himself remains tenacious in his pursuit of the truth, “Pay it no attention. Do not even wish to call to mind mere foolish, futile words … if you have any care for your own life, don’t search this out.” (King Oedipus, 1056-1061, from Sophocles: The Theban Plays, trans. Ruby Blondell, Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library.)
We Americans seem today to remain like Jocasta and the Lieutenant General. Indeed, we have internalized Jocasta’s advice to Oedipus: we do not even wish to call to mind such words and images that will reveal the truth of who we have become.
But the lieutenant general’s words already reveal too much, for the decision not to look is, in fact, a choice to collude in the abuse, in the full range of violence endemic to our actions in Iraq. It is a responsibility we all now bear, even those of us who never supported the president or his disastrous war, even, indeed, those of us who try to seek the truth by looking at and thinking through the implications of the images that find their way to us despite ourselves.

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