May 16, 2004

Downloading depravity

By: Joanne McNeil

I refreshed my web browser on the New York Times website to see a photo from Abu Ghraib change to one of Hugh Jackman tap dancing his way to a Tony award nomination as “The Boy From Oz.” I closed a browser window with a news article speculating what crimes are depicted in unreleased images, only to find an Evite in my inbox for a cookout this weekend.

The headlines are more than just another coat of surrealism to our modern age. The Internet time-shifts political scandals. We cannot suppress .jpeg files of prisoners tortured by American hands any more than we can stop an illicit mp3 download of Britney Spears’ latest single.

The Toledo Blade won’t need to send investigative journalists out to Abu Ghraib thirty years from now to discover a history of atrocities. Sergeant Ivan Frederick will never run for Senate (or fall back as President of the New School). Evidence of unthinkably inhumane activity has arrived at our front door–or, more aptly, on our Web browser’s homepage–at the speed of a mouse-click.

Abu Ghraib meets the dietary requirements of our insatiable appetite for sensationalism. It is a vivid adventure in psychology, torture, voyeurism, and blood lust seemingly ripped from the pages of a J.G. Ballard novel. There is Lynndie England, immediately iconic as the hayseed Myra Hindley. The image of the cloaked and hooded Iraqi on the box has served a purpose as the most “decent,” and therefore most frequently circulated, photograph. But enlarge the image and you will find wires attached to his hands at the threat of electrocution. The victim may be clothed, but he’s hardly sanitized for viewing.

Our American soldiers reportedly collected and traded these gross-out pictures in the mess hall.

But we already knew that many of our soldiers are no angels. Something more insidiously alluring than college scholarships and travel opportunities inspires many deviants and perverts to join the military. Troops of the first Gulf War included homegrown terrorists Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammed, and after serving in Afghanistan, four soldiers in Fort Bragg killed their wives. We should prepare for a second wave of Iraq veteran-led violence in the coming years.

As Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) tells us, “the worst is yet to come.” U.S. soldiers allegedly raped and murdered prisoners–on camera. This is the Army demoralized as a snuff film industry. Eerier still, we can only imagine the crimes that were not photographed.

The worst is still yet to come. This won’t be the last Google cache of unfathomably disturbing activities. Sometime again soon we will hear Stanley Milgram’s name invoked, and perhaps a few Lord of the Flies allusions. This revolution is more than televised, it is blogged, instant messaged, and e-mailed.

Joanne McNeil is a writer in Washington, D. C. Her website is