Leading article: Tear down this monument to inhumanity


The Independent

Published: 17 February 2006

It was probably inevitable that more horrific pictures would emerge of the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, conceded at the outset that there were many more photographs than had seen the light of day. It was probably inevitable, too, that the new images, although in some respects more graphic and distasteful than the last, would have less of an impact, at least outside the Muslim world. Shaming though it may be to admit it, the first pictures inoculated us to an extent against further revelations. Abuse at Abu Ghraib has lost some of its capacity to shock.

In the United States, the new pictures prompted calls for a fresh inquiry. The administration insisted that no inquiry was necessary because the images related to events from some time ago, which had been investigated and punished and were no longer taking place. This is hardly adequate. The only people to have been investigated and punished so far were the supposedly few bad apples in junior positions. Investigations have gone no further. Anyone more senior has been effectively exonerated.

The other official US response was to appeal for the pictures to be withdrawn lest they incite further attacks on American forces in Iraq. Fears of a backlash against US troops are entirely understandable, but the appeal was hardly realistic. If there had been no abuse, there would be no pictures to inflame Iraqi anger. Whose responsibility was it to guard against such an eventuality, if not the commanding officers on the ground and the policy-makers in Washington?

It was unfortunate, of course, for the safety of all foreign troops in Iraq that the new pictures started to circulate just as passions over the Danish cartoons exploded into violence across the Muslim world and film came to light of British troops savagely beating young Iraqi protesters. None of this, however, diminishes the gravity of the crimes at Abu Ghraib.

That American officers in Baghdad are now reportedly trying not to confine "first offenders" in this prison - which they increasingly regard as an incubator for terrorists - suggests wisdom belatedly born of experience. Yet there was always a better solution. So potent a symbol of Saddam Hussein's cruelty should never have been used as a prison by the US occupiers in the first place. It should have been emptied of inmates and demolished.

Demolition was broached after the first pictures of US abuse of prisoners appeared. It remains the obvious, indeed the only, option that remains. What more demonstrative gesture of US contrition, how else to purge the barbarism it has seen, than to evacuate this infernal fortress and destroy it for good?