Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

In case anyone missed this, there is a detailed article on the torture at Abu Ghraib in The New Yorker. Unlike the sniper rumor, this one is pretty much documented fact. I realize that this is obviously not standard behavior, but it is not a single wacko, but a group of soldiers. It's really quite appalling. How can something like this happen? What is the mood like among American soldiers in Iraq? Is there a general hatred or is it really isolated behavior? I can't imagine an occupying force being very successful without some basic respect for the local citizens.

I remember hearing that the occupying forces in post-war Japan were selected from soldiers who had not served in combat against the Japanese. Most of the stories you hear about the soldiers occupying Japan are good stories. I suppose it's easier to be nice when there is no resistance, but still... (My sister has a nice post about the story of our family's first interaction with the US occupation of Japan.)

I also heard from a Spanish friend of mine that there is very little if no hatred towards Muslims after the 3/11 attack in Madrid. People realize that it is a splinter group and are not blaming the Muslims.

I don't want to over-generalize, but trying to link Al Qaeda to Iraq and the increased racism directed at Muslims in the US really highlights the lack of racial sympathy or understanding on the US's part. I think the US really needs to figure out how to deal with this racial intolerance and ignorance if it's going to try do any kind of nation building.

Before someone else says it, I think racism in Japan is also very bad, but we're not toppling regimes and trying to rebuild them. I wouldn't trust Japan with that either.


I'm not especially surprised that we aren't very good at occupation. I know and like quite a few people in our military, but I don't know a single one who went into it as a way to improve the lot of the rest of the world. Mostly, we're (me included) among the most provincial people you'll find in the world today, barring folks who haven't yet invented clothing beyond a loincloth. (We might have them beat, too, if they have contact with another culture in their own forest.)

I suspect that a comparison to occupying Japan isn't the model our soldiers are using in Iraq. Probably their picture of things was based more on "helping the CIA interrogate the gooks in 'Nam" in movies. I've only heard from a couple of friends who are in Iraq right now, but they don't make it sound like they are occupying, they make it sound like they are still at war.

Thanks to some bad reading of the requirements, I had to take a freshman Sociology course during my second senior year as an undergrad. A very nice and intelligent young woman from a small ranching town, where a rather high percentage of her fellow high school classmates would have "done their hitch in the service" as a matter of course, stood up and very seriously asked "but isn't the US the only country in the world where people are truly happy?"

Those big signs they put on the back of cars driven by people learning how to drive? It would probably be best if we were required to wear them whenever we leave the country.

I would like to point out that the CIA has been torturing terrorist suspects outside of Iraq for some time. A US official at Guantanamo Bay commented "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job."

The other trick is to not do the torture yourself, but to have the torture done by other people, or in the words of a US official "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." Apparently many suspects have been handed over to intelligence agencies of countries that are known for their brutality, with a list of questions to be answered.

(See this article :,1284,865454,00.html ) which was published in December *2002*.

I suppose it is news that torture is going on in Iraq just for the fun of it, without orders, rather than being carried out by US government officials. The other new element is that the military forces and mercenaries in Iraq are open to retribution, unlike the officials in Guantanamo Bay, who can torture people without fear of media scrutiny or retribution by the prisoners.

This comment about the situation from Amnesty International might also be of interest (thanks to media commentator Russell Brown.)

If you have people run prisons without any reliable monitoring system and without clear legal obligations of the staff to avoid abuse, this result is just what one should expect.

Therefore, I think that this case has just given a major boost to those who call on the US to accept the International Criminal Court, instead of insisting on impunity for their citizens.

Well I think you do want to over-generalize because it seems to me you do it over and over, cherry picking anecdotes to support your political barb of the day.

Relatively speaking, the Arab/Muslim is despised in Europe. Are you aware of the state of conditions of Muslims in France?

Let me add my well-travelled Iranian friend in LA, who has lived in France and Belgium, claims there is no place else in the world he feels more welcome than the US, aside from (parts of) Iran, and his Spanish wife tends to agree.

Joi, I'd like to hear an honest account of your personal experiences with racism in the US.

How can something like this happen? How can it NOT happen?

Zealots, nutcases, power-addicts, sadists, imitators, and pushovers are everywhere and they show their colors in the shadows. Would any other army do better? I don't think so.

Even in the States, you know how cruel law enforcement officers can be when the conditions are right. Most of them are all right most of the time, but not all and not all the time. It's just human nature.

All we can do is try to minimize the damage and maximize the punishment. Unfortunately, US Army's concept of punishment in cases like these leave a lot to be desired.

> Would any other army do better?

I beg to differ. As I indicated earlier, the US Government has been willing to compromise basic human rights since 9/11, with support from the highest levels right on down to ordinary citizens.

I'm not talking about the vaunted principles of free speech here - I'm talking about the 'stress-and-duress' techniques that are more commonly known as torture.

When the government is looking the other way as torture is used to get information, this makes the message 'treat the prisoners humanely' into a joke. Amnesty International has reported that inhumane treatement of Iraqis detained in their own country (without charge) by military forces is common.

I don't know about where you are, but in New Zealand if we discovered that the government was allowing torture by our own agencies as a routine procedure, or passing people on to other governments to be tortured, there would be a huge outcry. I'm yet to hear an official say that violating human rights is part of doing a good job here.

This isn't a case of human nature - it is the US public at large thinking that torture of a few hundred Iraqis is justified if it might prevent terrorist attacks in the USA. This attitude has spread on through to the lower levels of the army, simplified to 'torture of Iraqis is justified.'

That's an interesting anecdote Anil. It's nice to hear, really. Does your friend feel ask comfortable in other parts of the US or are you talking primarily about LA?

I guess if you want to generalize, we can talk about the government, which I do think reflects public sentiment. Throwing Japanese in internment camps during WWII and rounding up lots of totally unrelated Arab American after 9/11 seems fairly racially motivated. Enough so that other minority groups spoke up publicly in protest.

The Spanish after 3/11 didn't do a general Muslim roundup but were very effective in identifying the suspects.

I have experienced racism in various forms, but the worst by far has been growing up in the US. I used to get beaten up and picked on fairly regularly when I was in elementary school in Michigan for being Japanese. I remember the only kid who ever stuck up for me was the Jewish kid. The text book at school even had Tokyo and Kyoto reversed on geography map. Most people thought Japs and Chinks were the same though so I don't think it was just the cars. But that was just my personal experience.

I don't think you can generalize from personal anecdotes though.

I don't think I'm "cherry picking anecdotes to support your political barb of the day". ;-) I'm providing any anecdotes I think are relevant whether they support or question the points I'm making.

I don't know much about racism in Europe and did a bit of Googling around but I couldn't find anything that compares racism in different countries. I guess I'm sure it exists almost everywhere, but one thing you can measure is how much the government tolerates it.

Wow, Joi's gone really aggressively political in this blog. Nice.

A relevant comment today on another item.
Comment from G Nimmich on May 4, 2004 04:49 PM

3 May 2004

When I woke up Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I was not very proud of my country. Unfortunately that feeling was the result of the actions of just a few, but those actions may well have set this country back 50 years. As I am sure was true with most Americans, I was repulsed by the pictures of Iraqi prisoners being treated in the most inhumane manner and the images of those responsible posing and smiling. Now we MUST do four very important things. 1) Those responsible must be punished to the fullest extent of the law based on the facts of a truthful investigation. To say they did not receive proper training or that they were instructed to carry out their actions is unforgivable. The military I know would never train her soldiers to act in such a vile manner and were they ordered they had the absolute right to not obey such an unlawful order. They knew without a doubt that what they were doing was wrong and they must be held fully accountable. They personally violated the principles upon which this country is founded. 2) The Commanding General should lose her command, rank and probably her commission. To publicly state that she was not allowed to visit a part of her command is absolutely absurd and even if true she should have been the first to raise questions. She failed to uphold the faith and trust placed in her as a commissioned officer of the US Army and her actions clearly point to her total failure in command. She must take full responsibility and should now work vehemently to sort out the truth. Her final punishment, as the commanding officer, should be greater than those who actually performed the actions. 3) The US government must herald the truth. I am a supporter of President Bush and I strongly recommend that he immediately personally and publicly apologize to the Iraqi people and the Arab world. He should then call for a complete and open investigation by an independent agency such as the UN. To leave this in the hands of the military or even some Congressional committee would only incite those who would claim a cover-up. Maybe more than any time in our history we need total openness complete candor and the willingness to say we were wrong. 4) The press was absolutely correct to bring this to the attention of the public. In this case I am saddened by Gen Meyers admission that he asked the press to hold it until tensions decreased; just another attempted cover-up. But now the press MUST give equal treatment, time and front-page coverage to the many good things that Americans and our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have done and are doing in Iraq. We need stories about hospitals opening, schools being rebuilt and the freedoms that are being enjoyed by the majority of Iraqis. The press needs to help improve our now tarnished image. I support our invasion, the end to a murderous regime and the attempt to build a better Iraq, but that must be done by the Iraqis with the help they request. Now every American must work harder and make a stronger commitment to showing the world what is good about this great country. We stand at another crossroad in our history and we must decide what America the rest of the world will see and know. It is our actions, our basic faith and the decency in our hearts that must now carry the light and torch of freedom.

Geoff Nimmich
Army Officer Retired
Leesburg, VA

Joi --
Here is a link to the sites Google pulled up with a search for "France racism muslim." The French government is banning muslim headscarves in schools throughout the country. This is a situation where the government not only tolerates racism, but is actively propagating it through this ban. Yes, in the US there have been incidents of racism directed against people of middle eastern descent after 9/11. The President also repeatedly asked the American public to not blame American muslims for the actions of a fanatic minority.
Click for racism in France

I'm sorry to hear that you experienced racism as a child growing up in the US. When I was growing up I got picked on and was in a fair number of fights because I was really thin. My point is that kids will pick on other kids for any reason, and most of them grow out of it. A current example of racism against you would probably be more appropriate.

" I'm providing any anecdotes I think are relevant whether they support or question the points I'm making." That's funny, because I haven't seen any anecdotes that question any of the points you are making. Maybe you can post a link to direct me to some?

The French sound pretty bad. Thanks for the link.

I realize the President ask asked the American public not to blame American Muslims, but the profiling and roundups are quiet racist anyway. Most racists either don't realize they are being racist or at least do not admit it publicly.

I don't experience much direct racism these days. I think I'm lucky because most of the people I hang out with are educated and sensitive and probably would say stuff to my face that people used to say when I was a child. Also, the Japanese are really not that threatening to the world right now so we're not really getting picked on very much. We talked about a bit with the Lost in Translation thread, but I think there is racism built into many of the stereotypes, but these aren't very hateful, but still have an effect. I'm dig into some material about racism and try to post something more intelligent in soon.

Anecdotes that question my points... I think I do, but maybe you're right. Maybe I don't post anecdotes that question my points. Hey, this is one! ;-)

It's interesting, Joi, that you compare the US occupation in Iraq to its occupation of Japan after WWII in the context of a post about racism in America.

The post-war occupation of Japan has been regarded as one of the most successful in history, but I don’t think its relative success can be explained by suggesting that the level of racism and ignorance among US soldiers was lower then than it is today.

I’m sure you’ve seen the propaganda used here in the U.S. during the war – a cartoon depiction of a Japanese man on the cover of Life magazine, for example, with Hirohito glasses, bloody fangs and a knife behind his back with the quote “Oh, so sorry” and a message inspiring Americans push onward during the later stages of the war.

Even if the soldiers who were selected for the occupation hadn’t ever fought against Japanese forces, they were undoubtedly affected by the barrage of images like these and other racially-motivated propaganda intended to bolster support for the war effort. The lingering stereotypes and anti-Japanese sentiments held even today, sixty years later, by our “Greatest Generation” – my own grand-parents included, I’m ashamed to admit – bear testament to the effectiveness of that marketing campaign and strongly suggest that the US soldiers in Japan after the war were no more racially sympathetic than the ones in Iraq today.

I’ve actually been intrigued for years by how history came to hold the US occupation of Japan in such high regard. I don’t doubt at all that there were attempts at cultural understanding made by US soldiers like the one Mimi describes (though the soldier’s taking his shoes off seems like a small consolation given that he was evicting your family from their home). But in spite of those, there were undoubtedly abuses by US soldiers that took place in Japan during the decade following the war that were far uglier than what we’ve seen in Iraq in the past week.

The only difference, I have to believe, was the level of control that the occupying force exerted on media in Japan and on the flow of information back to the US.

Is there something else that you think I’m missing? I have a tough time buying the idea that there was a general sense of goodwill felt by Japanese towards their liberators…who had just waged a one of the most atrocious military campaigns in the history of war, including the deliberate and absolutely unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

So before we begin patting our Greatest Generation on the back one more time, let’s at least consider the possibility that any “good wars” or “good occupations” may well be fairy-tales obscured by the fact that they took place in an era of no information and therefore virtually no accountability.

Access to information and the ability to exchange ideas help us highlight our failures today. But it’s important to keep in mind that things really have gotten better. We’re far from perfect – case in point, a fundamentalist president who would manipulate a nation into going to war out personal vendetta. But just imagine what might happen if we couldn’t see what he was doing…

David, your comment about transparency is a good one. I think there are a few uniquenesses often cited about the occupation of Japan. Although the atom bombs killed a great number of people, and lots of bombs were dropped across Japan there was no real on-the-ground hand-to-hand combat in Japan. I think this helped the Japanese people distance the war from the soldiers that they were meeting and although there was a lot of propoganda about the Americans, I think much of this image was quickly dispelled and replaced with an almost fawning envy of America by most. The Japanese also felt that the war was waged by an out-of-control Japanese military and were in fact quite happy to see the end of the war and and expulsion of the military power from Japan. Remember, members the Japanese military had gone as far as assassinating the Prime Minister.

But I agree, we don't know the "facts" and I think that more exposure is better than less.

David Morton: I have a tough time buying the idea that there was a general sense of goodwill felt by Japanese towards their liberators…who had just waged a one of the most atrocious military campaigns in the history of war, including the deliberate and absolutely unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

IMHO it may be the idea the Japanese told to the American to enter one of the largest overseas market of Japan after WWII... when you lost the war, you have no choice anyway. Though I don't know how those old generation felt actually about the american occupation, if newer generations of Japanese start to believe the idea, I think it's not so bad if false.

If you like historical facts, after WWII the north east area of China which had been the part of the Japan Empire was occupied by the USSR, and the Japanese families in the area who failed to escape were killed or raped, and 600,000 soldiers were sent to forced labor camp in Siberia (10% of them died there in 10 years). OTOH the US sentenced some of the highest-rank military leaders to death but kept the Emperor intact and helped Japan to recover to be an assistant in the Capitalism bloc. Aside from sentimental conflict toward Japan which the comtemporary American talk about often, as a Japanese I believe there's pragmatic matters to be taken in account, even though human is _sometimes_ moved by sentiment.

I totally agree you can't compare the days without media and today's Iraq, though. But I wonder why good rumors are not heard from Iraq while only bad rumors are on the mouth of people on the net :P

Anecdotes of your "friend in Spain" need to be Googled. Take a look what I found in the Google News typing "Spainish" and "Muslims" and you'll see that even the Socialist government (i.e. the anti-war government) is seeking to crack down on Muslims by monitoring (some say regulating) what is said in Mosques.

Spain to monitor mosques
Jerusalem Post, Israel - May 3, 2004
The Spanish government is considering monitoring mosques and imams to curb Islamic extremism blamed for the March 11 terror bombings in Madrid, the foreign ...

Brian dixit:

Here is a link to the sites Google pulled up with a search for "France racism muslim." The French government is banning muslim headscarves in schools throughout the country. This is a situation where the government not only tolerates racism, but is actively propagating it through this ban.

Well, AFAIK, the ban’s rationale is that the French public schools are supposed to be lay environments, where the display of conspicuous religious signs — be they Christian, Jew, Muslim... — is frowned upon.

Muslim girls are wearing scarves or tchadors of their own volition, e.g. as a fashion statement, to protect their modesty, or to affirm a cultural identity. There are, however, cases where the girls’ family or local community actually pressure the girls to wear them.
The ban, consolidating the schools’ lay character, also makes the lives of these rebellious and subversive girls who do NOT want to cover their heads slightly easier.

I am touched by your sister’s story. When prompted we will act correctly. War is not pleasant for either the soldier or the citizen. Are American service men perfect? Far from it. Keep in mind Japanese history did not start with the surrender. We have to answer for things like the Jail horrors, as Japan had to face the Battan death march, the Rape of Nanking and so on. My hope is that the US will quickly and correctly address our errors.

The pictures and descriptions of torture are horrifying. Usually I feel a kind of indirect connection for both positive and negative actions taken by the US. But for this, as an American, I feel personal shame. I hope that, in addition to making those who did this accountable, something is done to make sure nothing like this happens again.

Joi- I think your link between American racism and torture is faulty. American racism seems worse than it is. Over the past five years I lived and worked as a consultant in Scandanavia, Germany, England, and France. In the interest of brevity, I'll leave out my own personal anecdotes but it's clear to me that racism exists everywhere. The difference is, in the US racism (and sexism) is publicly discussed. In Europe, it's not as much of a front-page issue, but in some ways it's worse.

In addition to being labeled as racists, Americans are also often derided for being politically correct. American liberals (about half the US population) are probably the most self-consciously stereotype-avoiding group in the world. As a consequence, American racism seems worse because it is frequently discussed in the media and among individuals. But because people are made aware of it, it is also not as bad as racism in many other parts of the world. Americans' attempt to address their racism and deal with it makes the US seem simultaneously more racist and politically correct.

It looks like I'm at risk of becoming a regular poster here.

I think the incident in the jail in Iraq is isolated. I doubt seriously it is any indication of a larger problem within the US military. It's an unfortunate thing for me to say but I've found that whenever you get a group of 3 or more males together typically they don't have one brain between them. Frequently, otherwise sensible, intelligent people become idiots when they get in a group. Something about groupthink. Maybe this is only a phenomenon here in the US.

My experience talking to my fellow citizens in the US is one of shock and shame regarding the behavior of these individuals. We are shocked that some of our own treat other people so poorly when we are supposed to be over there eliminating this type of thing. Shame, because this is not indicative of how we see ourselves.

It is also unfortunate that here we allow freedoms of speech etc and this allows idiots to abuse that freedom. As a result you hear garbage getting spewed about all kinds of minorities whether it is Gays or Muslims, or Jews, or whatever and because it pushes ratings this stuff gets press coverage. I think that leads to an impression that those opinions are more widespread or accepted than they really are. As I've said before, I live in Texas, a state not really known for its tolerance of minorities, and here in my area we have a sizeable Arabic population. There were some isolated incidents but generally that community has been regarded with respect post 9/11.

Regarding racism in the USA, I may as well declare that I am a white male. I grew up in a predominantly upper middle class suburb. All this tends to get my opinion on racism discounted here in the US but I'm going to state it anyway. I'm ashamed to say the US does not have a good track record regarding it's treatment of minorities. We still have a long way to go both societally and individually. BUT, with that said I am proud of our desire to consantly improve and of the progress we have made. I think our track record compared to a lot of other places isn't really that bad. We're just a little over 500 years old since Columbus first set foot here and a little over 135 years since the abolition of slavery and today 2 of the most powerful people in this country are African American. Some areas around the world still deal with issues along ethnic lines that go back over 1000 years and they have been living side by side the whole time.

I personally think doing not, "that bad" (my own terminology) is completely unacceptable and I think most Americans agree and that is why we all work toward doing better.

> Before someone else says it, I think racism
> in Japan is also very bad, but we're not
> toppling regimes and trying to rebuild them.

Not this century, anyway. :)

Via fotolog saw pictures now ballyhooed as questionable, maybe something that will go away. Whether this or that incident goes away or not, bully war sure costs a lot.

Dave, my assertion that other armies would not be better assume that they also suffered 9/11 like trauma. The important thing is to prevent and punish to minimize the chance of it happening. It will happen again as certainly as the sun will rise tommorrow but I'll settle with it happening less often.

Michael,let me rephrase my point. I think that this sort of behavior, whether by Americans or anyone else involves racism if it is directed against a different race. It's natural human nature. I think the key is to identify it and try to deal with it. Racism is deeply rooted in all of our cultures and appears in many forms including stereotypes. The better we identify these things and try to change, the less these sorts of incidents will happen, I believe. I probably shouldn't single the US out on this. It is probably worse in most countries. It's just that the US is trying to police the world right now and has more responsibility.

Putting racism aside, I think that Europeans seem to have a better understanding of cultural diversity and how to manage it than Americans do. Am I wrong about this?

> The post-war occupation of Japan has
> been regarded as one of the most successful
> in history

I'd like to point out that the democracy building efforts by the US after World War II were largely ineffective - the same party (the LDP) ruled continuously in Japan for four decades from the start of general elections until 1993. Even now Joi frequently comments that government and democracy in Japan are dysfunctional. (And the same party is back in power, of course.)

So I wouldn't be holding up Japan as an example of how the US spreads democracy around the world. (The fact that the US governing council didn't allow elections months ago because a majority of Muslim parties would have won isn't exactly a blow for democracy either.)

*In a different vein, I'd like to point out that the law banning ostentatious religious symbols like Stars of David, crosses and headscarves isn't racist - because it's not about race, it's about religion.

2 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: The New Yorker on the torture at Abu Ghraib.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Side Effects of War from Home is where the heart is. Apparently.
May 4, 2004 11:38 AM

Joi has been posting a steady stream of war commentary, discussing the insurgence (to coin a phrase) of the treatment... Read More

Joi Ito's Web: The New Yorker on the torture at Abu Ghraib In case anyone missed this, there is a detailed article on the torture at Abu Ghraib in The New Yorker. Unlike the sniper rumor, this one is pretty Read More