Errol Morris’ ‘S.O.P.’ and the Thrown Shoes of Muntazer al-Zaidi

Last Thursday I saw Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure,” an incredibly powerful documentary of the war crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, and the photographs thereof, put into context by the soldiers who were there. (Morris also made the great documentaries “The Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line.”) The most striking part of the “S.O.P.” film, aside from the wincing photos of torture and humiliation, is the ‘good kid’ quality of the participants and their bland, almost casual, recitations of how they helped to cause other human beings to suffer greatly sure, some knew it wasn’t right, but they had been ordered to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation. It apparently never entered their minds that they were committing the same sorts of tortures that caused Iraqis to loathe Saddam Hussein and were used as a justification by the Bush Administration for the invasion of Iraq. The commentary by these young kids, most of them barely of drinking age and without training in interrogation, exudes Hannah Arendt’s oft-quoted line about the “banality of evil” and leaves several questions looming like large dark shadows over the entire farce of justice that sentenced these noncoms to prison terms: Why wasn’t anyone above the rank of E-7 (Staff Sergeant) jailed, especially US Army Col. Thomas Pappas, who was officially in command of interrogations at Abu Ghraib? (Pappas was forced to pay back $8,000 in wages and received a reprimand, but no criminal charges were ever filed.) Why was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, former commander of Gitmo, allowed to retire honorably, since the abuse of prisoners apparently began when he took over Abu Ghraib? Why weren’t any senior members of the Bush Administration ever held accountable for the Abu Ghraib scandal? And these are just a few of the more obvious questions.

In case you aren’t familiar with the ugly and varied dimensions of these tortures at ‘Abu G,’ as a soldier in the film called it, here is a summary culled from US government and Red Cross reports (.pdf file):

“Soldiers tore out detainees toenails, administered electric shocks, beat detainees with hard objects (including pistols and rifles), slapped and punched detainees, kicked them with knees or feet on various parts of the body (legs, sides, lower back, groin), forcefully pressed detainees faces into the ground by stepping on their heads, purposely exposed detainees to severe heat and sun for prolonged periods, and forced detainees to stay in ‘stress’ positions (kneeling, squatting, standing with arms raised over their heads) for hours at a time.” []

“At least two detainees were forced to sit or lie down on blistering surfaces, causing severe burns that resulted in large crusted lesions and, in one case, three months hospitalization, the amputation of a finger and large skin grafts.”

The perverse sexual humiliation of the prisoners isn’t noted here, but it’s apparent in the photographs, and also not mentioned is the fact that at least one man was murdered as a result of torture, Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi died just hours after his capture from abuse by Navy SEALs and torture by CIA personnel.

These are all war crimes according to the Geneva Conventions and US law, and, naturally, among the major reasons the Iraqi people hate our guts.

That brings us to Iraq’s current hero Muntazer al-Zaidi, the 30-year-old TV journalist who took the mild recourse of tossing his shoes at George W. Bush during Junior’s surprise visit to Iraq in December of 2008. (To the profound regret of many Americans, our first President installed by the Supreme Court managed to dodge both pieces of al-Zaidi’s footwear.)

Al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years, but was released in less than one year, ostensibly due to his good record, but probably because his continued confinement had become a P.R. nightmare for the shaky remains of the al-Maliki government.

Watch Morris’ documentary on Abu Ghraib, think about how you would feel if this were done to Americans, and then congratulate al-Zaidi on the forbearance and thoughtfulness of his words that follow:

Why I Threw the Shoe

I am no hero. I just acted as an Iraqi who witnessed the pain and bloodshed of too many innocents
by Muntazer al-Zaidi
September 18, 2009
(Originally published in The Guardian/UK)

I am free. But my country is still a prisoner of war. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act. But, simply, I answer: what compelled me to act is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.

Over recent years, more than a million martyrs have fallen by the bullets of the occupation and Iraq is now filled with more than five million orphans, a million widows and hundreds of thousands of maimed. Many millions are homeless inside and outside the country.

We used to be a nation in which the Arab would share with the Turkman and the Kurd and the Assyrian and the Sabean and the Yazid his daily bread. And the Shia would pray with the Sunni in one line. And the Muslim would celebrate with the Christian the birthday of Christ. This despite the fact that we shared hunger under sanctions for more than a decade.

Our patience and our solidarity did not make us forget the oppression. But the invasion divided brother from brother, neighbour from neighbour. It turned our homes into funeral tents.

I am not a hero. But I have a point of view. I have a stance. It humiliated me to see my country humiliated; and to see my Baghdad burned, my people killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, pushing me towards the path of confrontation. The scandal of Abu Ghraib. The massacre of Falluja, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. I travelled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and heard with my own ears the screams of the orphans and the bereaved. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.

As soon as I finished my professional duties in reporting the daily tragedies, while I washed away the remains of the debris of the ruined Iraqi houses, or the blood that stained my clothes, I would clench my teeth and make a pledge to our victims, a pledge of vengeance.

The opportunity came, and I took it.

I took it out of loyalty to every drop of innocent blood that has been shed through the occupation or because of it, every scream of a bereaved mother, every moan of an orphan, the sorrow of a rape victim, the teardrop of an orphan.

I say to those who reproach me: do you know how many broken homes that shoe which I threw had entered? How many times it had trodden over the blood of innocent victims? Maybe that shoe was the appropriate response when all values were violated.

When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diaspora.

If I have wronged journalism without intention, because of the professional embarrassment I caused the establishment, I apologise. All that I meant to do was express with a living conscience the feelings of a citizen who sees his homeland desecrated every day. The professionalism mourned by some under the auspices of the occupation should not have a voice louder than the voice of patriotism. And if patriotism needs to speak out, then professionalism should be allied with it.

I didn’t do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country.

2009 Guardian News and Media Limited

Muntazer al-Zaidi is an Iraqi reporter who was freed this week after serving nine months in prison for throwing his shoe at former US president George Bush at a press conference. This edited statement was translated by McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Sahar Issa www.mcclatchydc.com