July 8, 2004
Abu Ghraib: In Search of the Prisoner's Voice
W. Clark Gilpin
In recent months, both the United States and the international community have been seared by images of U.S. soldiers engaged in the physical abuse and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But, despite many pictures of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, the voices of these prisoners are strikingly absent from the record.
The media have focused, not without good reason, on the prisoners as victims, as the objects of mistreatment. At the same time, these prisoners are also active subjects, persons who have an account to give from direct experience and are able to bear an irreplaceable witness to what occurred. What will their testimony be, when once their widely depicted physical forms and their hitherto estranged voices are recombined into the fully human?
In once sense, the absence of voices in the public narrative is peculiar. After all, as Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and Anthony Lewis in the New York Review of Books have recently documented, the shameful occurrences at Abu Ghraib were almost entirely about the speech of prisoners. Torture -- a word with a newly contested definition -- had precisely the purpose of forcing prisoners to speak, to divulge, to incriminate. Such forced speech responds, of course, to questions that aim to create an official narrative of the political and military situation in Iraq. By contrast, free speech by prisoners frequently contests the official narrative, disputes its account of events, and challenges its certainties.
Over the centuries, precisely this collision between forced speech and free speech has occasioned a long tradition of prison writings -- from Socrates and the Apostle Paul to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King -- in which the prisoner's voice has broken an imposed silence and influenced world cultures. The English religious dissident John Frith, who was burned for heresy during the reign of Henry VIII, gave pithy expression to prisoners' voices in a letter smuggled out of Newgate Prison during the week before his execution, asking why should one side have "all the words" and "the other be put to silence?"
The voice of the prisoner is not, of course, a true voice simply by virtue of coming from behind bars. Prisoners in all epochs have known that the jail is a microcosm of the world, containing all types. But if the voice from prison is not the voice of truth, it is nonetheless a voice toward truth.
Like the witnesses in a trial, the witnesses from prison represent vantage points that are indispensable to just and honest public deliberation. We await a word from those who directly experienced Abu Ghraib.
W. Clark Gilpin teaches the modern history of Christianity at the University of Chicago and is currently writing a book about the letter from prison as a genre of religious literature.