The Haze of War | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Haze of War

Shrugging off Abu Ghraib photos with "hazing" comparison

Congressional Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Bradford Woods) is a conservative Republican, and like many of the breed, she can come across as straight-laced, uptight. But it isn't easy to get her to blush.


The Bradford Woods Republican recently told the Beaver County Times that the  "hand-wringing" over alleged abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison had been "overdone." Hart had just seen photos of abuse not yet released to the public. Colleagues said the new photos were even more disturbing than the notorious images of Iraqi men being taunted and piled naked on top of each other, but Hart said some of their outrage was mere "political fodder." The photos documented more of the same, she said, featuring Iraqis pantomiming sex acts and other poses Hart said were "kind of like hazing."


Really? Makes you wonder what kind of parties Hart went to in college.


In fairness, Hart might not have been referring to fraternity hazing at all: She could have been referring to initiation rituals of the College Republicans. But media outlets have been full of conservatives making such comparisons lately, each thoughtfully compiled by the leftist media watchdog site Media Matters.


Jonathan Last, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, recently appeared on Dennis Miller's CNBC talk show to note that while "I hope these guys are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the fact is that "[w]orse happens in frat houses across America." On Fox News, Oliver North used the abuses to critique higher education, of all things: The acts, he contended, were "the kind of thing that you might find on any college campus nowadays." Meanwhile, a caller told Rush Limbaugh that the prison abuse "was like a college fraternity prank," to which Limbaugh agreed, "Exactly my point!" Later, Limbaugh lamented that "we are going to really hammer" the soldiers involved, all "because they had a good time."


Sticklers for the Geneva Convention are killjoys, apparently. Just like that uptight Dean Wormer in Animal House.


Still, it's odd to hear conservatives trying to downplay what happened in Abu Ghraib. One of the biggest fears about the scandal is that it will confirm Islamic suspicions that we are morally decadent. Yet in response our so-called conservatives shrug and say, "Hey, this happens all the time here. Lighten up!"


You can understand Iraqis being insulted by the comparisons to fraternity hazing. But what about how the frat boys feel? I know a few, having taught a handful at Allegheny College in Meadville during the past school year. And they're not happy about the stereotypes being tossed around.


"How much of a cliché is that?" asks Michael Puchany, a member of Allegheny's Theta Chi fraternity. "It's like, ‘What's the first thing we compare this too? I know -- something we saw in a movie!'"


Puchany, a Washington County native, is the kind of voter Hart wants on her side. An independent-minded libertarian, he confesses that when compared to everything else that has happened in Iraq, Abu Ghraib "doesn't make me that upset. Would you rather have your house bombed?" Still, he says, "To say torturing prisoners is no worse than fraternity hazing is awful."


"For her to compare what is going on to what she thinks goes on in a fraternity...some people should rethink who their elected officials are," agrees John Meyer, a recent Allegheny grad who re-established the school's defunct Phi Delta Theta.


Fraternity members can't say publicly what their initiations involve, of course. Such traditions are a secret almost as closely held as how the government handles "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, where nearly 600 alleged terrorists have been detained without trial. (You'll be relieved to know, however, that days before assessing the Abu Ghraib photos as mere "hazing," Ms. Hart returned from Guantanamo: There she found that "interrogations are conducted in a manner that is just to the detainees." So Guantanamo is even nicer than a frat house!) But both Puchany and Meyer say that pledging didn't involve anything remotely like the Abu Ghraib experiences -- "nothing physical at all," Puchany says. No one was stripped bare and accosted with barking guard dogs. No one was forced to fake oral sex with another pledge. And while the military has cited evidence that Iraqis were sodomized with glow-sticks and other implements, Puchany says, "I doubt that in any fraternity in America are people sticking broomsticks up other men's asses as part of hazing."


Accounts of such acts at Abu Ghraib have often been overlooked in the public debate, mostly because we haven't seen them. While they are included in military reports, they aren't in the photos, at least not the ones that have been released. Neither are the two pictures Seymour Hersh described in the The New Yorker article that broke much of this story: "There is the battered face of prisoner No. 153399, and the bloodied body of another prisoner, wrapped in cellophane and packed in ice. There is a photograph of an empty room, splattered with blood." The images that have aired have been more humiliating than brutal, and so listening to the evening news, you get the sense that humiliation is all that happened.


Sexual hazing is bad enough, of course, and it does sometimes take place here. Pittsburghers will recall the 2002 scandal at Central Catholic High School, in which members of the football team slapped younger players in the face with their genitals. But as a general rule, "It's your choice to walk away at any time if there's anything you don't want to go through," Puchany says. 


And as Meyer points out, hazing is usually carried out with the attitude that "It happened to me, so it'll happen to you."


You certainly can't use such excuses in Abu Ghraib. The prisoners clearly couldn't choose to leave. They clearly weren't going to become "one of the guys" when it was over. They weren't being initiated as brothers; they were being deprived of their dignity as human beings. 


All this is obvious, or should be. Nobody who thought for a second would really consider Abu Ghraib to be a form of "hazing." You make comparisons like this because you don't want to think about it. Calling the abuses "hazing" conceals them in, well, a haze -- a fog that obscures the facts, that allows us to feel that we haven't done anything worse to Iraqis than we've willingly done to each other. It's all just a matter of young people having what Limbaugh calls "a good time."


"I just want to slap people who say stuff like that," Puchany says. By the standards of conservatives, apparently, that'd be letting them off easy. Even if they just wanted to join your frat.

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