Literature and Terror: Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
“Rethinking Religion” is a radio, podcast and audio journal from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. Please visit our website,www.ircpl.org for additional transcripts, unedited conversations, and a shorter summary edition.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Today on “Rethinking Religion,” we’re thinking about the subject of terror in literature and in film. How do authors and artists respond to terror and terrorism through their work?
In this program, two interviews on terror and literature, at the intersections of religion, culture and public life. The first with Philip Gourevitch, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, former editor of The Paris Review and award-winning author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and The Ballad of Abu Ghraib portraits of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib.
In the second half-hour we’ll speak with Academy Award-winning film producer and director, Errol Morris, who collaborated with Philip Gourevitch on the book and film, Standard Operating Procedure.
Stay with us for “Rethinking Religion,” from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life…
NORRIS CHUMLEY: I’m Norris Chumley. Following news reports of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, author and journalist Philip Gourevitch became interested in what was behind the atrocities. He began visiting the African Republic of Rwanda the following year, in 1995, and over the next two years made nine trips to the country. His book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families was published in 1998, soon winning the National Book Critics Circle Award, the George Polk Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, among others. More recently, he collaborated with filmmaker Errol Morris on Standard Operating Procedure, a collection of portraits of Iraqi prisoners and their American jailers, and their infamous photographs of terror and torture.
As is the format and custom of “Rethinking Religion,” we offer a multi-perspective view on people and their ideas – and the values, traditions and beliefs that influence them. In this episode we offer two interviews with Philip Gourevitch: first, in a live public forum with an audience – interviewed first by Richard Locke, himself an acclaimed author and editor, and Columbia University Professor of Writing and Director of the Nonfiction Program. Locke was Gourevitch’s professor of writing when he attended the master’s program at Columbia in the early 1990’s.
RICHARD LOCKE: In Standard Operating Procedure you write, “There’s a constant temptation when rendering an account of history to distort reality by trying to make too much sense of it.” Could you elaborate? All or nothing.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: In order to be truthful, you’ve got to get at it through using your imagination. And as far as the distortion of reality by making it more real, I suppose that’s a way of saying that we intend to simplify and over-tidy-up our view of the world, and that there is a way in which we explain ourselves to ourselves in ways that are false in order to make it seem neat and orderly. And make too much sense of it. To come up with a theory. There are a lot of theories.
RICHARD LOCKE: You said – at one point in the first book, you said, “Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality, even if you have to kill a lot of them to make that happen.”
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yeah, that comes in a chapter on the history of Rwanda and the falsification of that history into kind of national myths or legends… they’re twisted stories. They’re deceptions. And they’re propaganda. And if you combine a very monolithic narrative structure, i.e., a government with one voice and a cowed, compliant population that is brutalized by violence to accept an account of things, they’ll accept that account.
There is a sense in which when you’re trying to understand Rwandan history, and you start to see these distortions, and the creation of identities that are set against each other, and the creation of two groups within that population that are actually created into mortal enemies by a sort of mixture of storytelling and violence and storytelling and violence where the blood makes the fiction true. Then you have to start to understand that that’s what that kind of power is. It becomes real. So at the same time as you’re explaining that it’s constructed as a fiction, you’re also explaining that it is real, and you don’t want to say one or the other. To say it’s a fiction is a fiction. To say it’s real is to ignore that it’s also a fiction. And so it’s a real fiction. That’s where people are living, and that’s where people are actually being killed.
RICHARD LOCKE: You say in that book at one point, “Genocide is an exercise in community building.”
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yeah, I mean, there is a level… and I say that because it occurred to me that at some level we make this mistake in thinking of the crime and political crimes in general that involve mass violence, as being equal to other crimes that are done without an ideal, or without a utopian overlay. And so when you’re obeying a political order by committing murder or extreme violence against someone, you’re not committing a crime according to that political order and its laws and its rules. You are obeying its laws and its rules. You are serving its cause. And so at that point there is the definition of some enemy, some group that is to be eliminated. It’s almost always presented in genocide in particular, which is a very extreme form of this, as a purging, a cleansing, the expulsion of an alien body, and the bringing together of us by the identification and extermination of them. And in fact, in the case of Rwanda it’s actually pretty explicit, where you see that the times where violence is harnessed as a tool by the majority Hutu population, throughout its post-colonial history, are times not when Tutsis are getting rowdy on the edges of Hutu power, but when Hutu power, with a small ‘p,’ is actually starting to deteriorate and fragment and there’s contest and struggle amongst the Hutu polity. And so the way that you unify them is by the creation of a common enemy and the call to a common struggle.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: This is “Rethinking Religion.” We’ll return to the public conversation shortly. In the meantime, I had a chance to ask some questions of Philip Gourevitch on religion and terror, at his office.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In your acclaimed book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families you mention the story of Cain from Genesis, where Cain’s murder of his brother is almost ignored by God, and the blood revenge model of justice is employed, which ultimately emerged as the divine law of social order. You make the point that it took many fratricidal struggles for this to come about. Why did you choose to link to the Bible?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Cain slays Abel and is made a wanderer on the Earth. He is a man exiled from community. He’s ostracized. Even as fratricide and the stain of murder are heavy stigma, and the mark of Cain sits on his brow, he is not himself annihilated by having annihilated his brother, but he survives, and he goes on to be the father of us all. That is the point I’m trying to make, that in this fundamental story, which our civilization has based much of its understanding of moral reality on, that’s the lesson we’ve told ourselves over and over.
In the Rwandan instance, there’s a reason I brought this up that’s very specific, which is that the Bible draws on a kind of traditional peasant/agrarian society and distinguishes between Cain and Abel as the pastoral one and one who is a cultivator of crops and one who is a herdsman. And the herdsman finds favor in God’s sight with his offering, and the cultivator of crops does not. And the cultivator of crops kills the herdsman. And in Rwanda the story, historically, is the Tutsi were cattle keepers. They were pastoralists, as it’s known in the anthropological literature. They kept cattle, and they herded cattle, and they lived on cattle, and they traded cattle, and Hutu are cultivators—cultivateurs—“Moi, je suis cultivateur.” That’s what they say. And it struck me that this strange dichotomy that’s at the core of the Bible’s view of sort of two human alternatives and that kind of a society should’ve found this expression in the late 20th century again in a fratricidal killing. It happens that Rwanda is one of the most Christianized countries in all of Africa.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Very much so.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: It is the most Catholicized country in all of Africa by percentage points.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Eighty-five percent.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yeah, and so these stories would’ve been known to Rwandans. Whether or not that meant anything—I never make any claim that Rwandans were going around talking about Cain and Abel. But they were certainly covered by this bizarre 19th century race science that came out of the Victorian explorers, and a kind of eugenic race science, in many ways, that was used to categorize Hutu and Tutsi by measuring their noses and cranial capacities.
A great deal of attention was paid to the idea that physiognomy would essentially amount to racial distinction, and racial distinction was fundamental—the difference in human quality. The exact same thinking, of course, that was the same science that led to the race science behind Nazism or slavery. And according to this, there was also a Biblical link, which is that people assumed that Hutus were the descendents of Ham, who according to the biblical story, or at least interpretations of the biblical story, the son of Noah who had seen his father naked after the flood who was banished and became a black man. All of these things were part of the mix of teachings and myths and national legends and identity understandings that people in Rwanda carried and were all mashed up together. The whole country was run as a kind of joint venture by the Belgian colonial order and the Catholic Church. Which was more devastating to the country is a matter of minor distinction, really—probably the church.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Did the church, either Catholic or the Protestants, let the Rwandan people down? They seem to—
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Oh! The Catholic Church is deeply complicit in the genocide. The Protestant church—there isn’t a Protestant church. There are some Protestant churches that have presences there. The title of the book comes from a story—“We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families,” is a phrase that comes from a letter written by Seventh Day Adventist pastors who were Tutsi to their Hutu superior, church president, in a Seventh Day Adventist area that was sort of colonized by American missionaries in western Rwanda, when they learned that he was part of the group of people that were coming to kill them. So the Protestants did not distinguish themselves better, except insofar as the churches did a lot less to cover it up. I know that the Adventists have done some investigations, not entirely satisfactory, of the behavior of their ministers. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has gone to substantial lengths to deny its role in the genocide, to some extent the reality of the genocide, and certainly to protect, reassign, and give refuge to the murderers amongst its priests.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: There’s a lot in the book about Kibeho Hill, where it’s claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared often. On Kibeho Hill she was said proclaim, ‘Woe for Rwanda!’ and had lurid visions of genocide. You report that later in 1994, the largest massacre was in the cathedral there, which was subsequently burned down.
One priest, Pierre Ngoga, defended refugees and was killed. Another, Father Thadée helped Interahamwe attacks, carried a rifle, and shot into the crowds. Church leaders were reported to frequently support the genocide. Bishop Masago told crowds of children not to worry—the police would protect them. But then he looked aside when the police massacred 82 children, later claiming he was uninformed, without influence, abandoned by the West, and showed no signs of remorse whatsoever. Father Wenceslas carried a pistol instead of a Bible. You wrote that he called his own Tutsi mother a cockroach. Do you think religious leaders might actually be more prone to corruption and wickedness because of their intangible beliefs in faith or connections to the church power structures?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well let’s just say they’re prone to self-righteousness. So that if they—I mean—there’s no logical explanation by which a sentient priest can claim that he ever thought that these things were legitimately aligned with his profession of faith to God. Obviously the Christian church has been involved in bloodshed since its inception, on a mass scale, but it has never been part of the Christian faith that one should practice this. And so there’s a contradiction that is not unique to Rwanda, but it is certainly absurd for church fathers to claim in any way that like, that they did this in the name of their religion. I don’t think they really did. I think that the corruption of the church—the political corruption of the church in Rwanda was very complicated. I don’t even pretend in the book, past a point—I think that with a story as strange as this kind of killing, one has to, on the one hand, seek to understand it and explain it, and on some level, respect the mystery that you don’t want to over—you cannot explain it perfectly. And I don’t understand what made Bishop Masago, a guy I went on to interview, be an apologist for the genocide, a participant of some kind in the genocide. For many of these other priests to become killers—for Father Wenceslas, who later ended up in Provence taking confession from French churchgoers after he’d been scurried out of the country by the Catholic route line. I don’t understand. Maybe they were never religious. Maybe they were always just apparatchiks. Maybe they just saw the church as a good racket and a career. I would like to think that they were perhaps people of faith on some level, but I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t seem to me that their faith was worth spit if they end up murdering their congregation in the name of a complete political lunacy. I don’t get it. But there it is.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: It happened.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: It is the story that happened over and over and over again in Rwanda.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: And happening again.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: It happens repeatedly around the world. Now it’s not—I mean, and the important thing is—and I make that case—there were priests who died acting the other way. And of course because they died we can’t interview them and puff them up and present them.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: The monks.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: And my bet is that some of them did out of genuine humility before God. That they would’ve thought—as powerfully as the other one came up with some bizarre rationalization—they would’ve thought that it was as a priest that they died, not just as somebody who was hunted. The irreligiosity of religious people does not strike me as a novelty or a kind of—but it’s not my only take on them either. It’s simply, this is the story that I was telling. And the Catholic Church is a political organization, as well as a religious organization. And it is an organization that is bathed in crime from the beginning of time, as well as in great spiritual leadership from the beginning of time, and that is a complicated thing to reckon with.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You’re listening to “Rethinking Religion,” our series on literature and terror: Rwandan genocide to interrogation and torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, with journalist and author, Philip Gourevitch. Shifting now to his recent book, The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, the paperback version of Standard Operating Procedure, co-written with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. You probably remember the horrific sets of photographs taken by American soldiers, of naked prisoners on leashes made to wear female underwear on their heads, prisoners covered in excrement, and soldiers appearing gleeful next to piles of detainees.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: We were holding innocent people without charges, having arrested them in mass sweeps, in bestial conditions, concentration camp conditions. And I don’t mean extermination camp conditions. I mean, you take a lot of people and you concentrate them at one point so they’re no longer out there. Beyond barbed wire, in outdoor facilities, where they were under constant mortar fire from insurgents outside the prison walls. Prisoners were being killed. Prisoners were being fed garbage. Literally, the contractors were bringing in dumpsters full of—dumpster diving for the food that they sold to the occupation. Because of course, we no longer actually use soldiers to do ninety percent of the tasks that soldiers used to do, so we hire either international contractors to do illegal things, or we hire local contractors to misserve our cause. And they were rioting, and we were using live ammunition on them.
And these things struck me as in some ways greater outrages than some of the humiliations bordering on physical torture that were captured on film and whose shock value is largely from their kind of sexual prurience and nastiness. And I wanted to get past that because again, the story to me is not about a couple of guards and their perverse moments on the night shift. But it’s about a kind of larger political system that placed them there. And that’s another reason that I draw attention away from the photographs while circling those photographs as the evidence. Because, I also think the photographs have been misunderstood in one really important aspect.
To me it really was—these photographs performed a public service. If they were staged, if they actually didn’t show the worst of it, what they did was they told us torture was happening at Abu Ghraib, and they were right. Even if what they showed us were fictional moments, it was still right. Even if a lot of quibbles could be had with what’s happening in each frame, so that it turns out that the naked man that Lynndie England is dragging on the leash isn’t really being dragged around on a leash for his sexual humiliation, but is being extracted from a cage, etcetera.
Naked prisoners were being strung up and kept in cages at Abu Ghraib in violation of all US Military doctrine, standing principles, and law. And that’s what mattered. And one had to always pull back from the kind prurient distraction of the photographs to the actual substance of the core of those photographs.
RICHARD LOCKE: You once said, I thought really quite surprisingly, that yes, that “evil” is a totally inadequate, and not something that you feel should be sort of trotted out as a be-all and end-all explanation for what’s happening. But you also said something just immediately after that, where you said, “what really matters is leadership.” That leadership matters.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Leadership matters because ideally, with good leadership, the fewest number of us will ever be put to the test of whether we’d behave decently under pressure or not. That is what political organization seems to me to be for. To get us to a place where as few of us as possible ever get found out for actually being quite dangerous to others under pressure. Because what does history really tell us? That the great mass of Europeans lived with it. Took part in it. Had no problem with it. That the ordinary soldier put in a situation where at the very least they’re asked to look the other way, where they’re not supposed to ruffle the chain of command where the chain of command reinforces it, lives with it. “They blew up our buildings. They’d have cut off our heads if they took us prisoner.”
So that became the standard. I mean, the line I say in the book is, when you’re fighting terror with terror, how do you know which is which? I think that was very much the rationale we got into as we rationalized it. But we’re not far from that, we live with it. And I think one of the reasons we should be nervous about it is that it’s not an issue that’s had much traction in our public life because I think people don’t mind.
RICHARD LOCKE: There’s that extraordinary moment when one of the young women, I think it’s Sabrina Harman, says that she really felt that she couldn’t really cope with what was going on. She didn’t really feel she wanted to participate with it anymore.
And she would see other people sort of sailing into action against these various detainees, and she felt that it was a lack in herself that she couldn’t really participate enthusiastically in any way. And her final excuse was, “I guess they were just more patriotic than I was.”
(AUDIO CLIP: From film, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE)
SABRINA HARMAN: I have a bad feeling about this place. The prison is called Abu Ghraib. 30,000 people were murdered here…
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yeah, she sort of felt like, if she’s told to do something she doesn’t like, she felt maybe it was a bad form of individualism, that she was kind of saying, “I’d rather not.”
There’s this guy named “Gus,” who is the guy you may know from the photograph of Lynndie England with the man at the end of the leash, the naked man at the end of what looks like a dog leash, being pulled out of his cell. And these nicknames, by the way, were the nicknames that were used by the American soldiers for these Iraqis. And I don’t use their Iraqi names in the book, although through prisoner number and correlation charts we were able to figure them out, because presumably these people were innocent. Why identify—there’s nothing really gained by it. It’s one of those kind of facts that makes you feel like you lose something when you don’t actually know something. You don’t really know more about who they are. And I wanted to stay inside the American heads. I wanted you to feel always that sense of them with their prisoner names.
“Gus” refuses to eat. He refuses clothing in this place where everybody’s otherwise being forced to strip naked. He would always say, “I will kill you! I will kill you, Americans! I will kill all the Jews. I will kill all the Americans!” And they thought he was some big Al Qaeda guy, or maybe an old Ba’athist heavy from Saddam’s interior security forces, until they found out that he was actually just a local town drunk who’d been picked up and thrown onto the back of an American military truck. But he just didn’t like being in captivity very much. They had to force-feed him with IV bags. He was on a complete hunger strike, effectively. And they panicked about this at one point. They loaded him into the back of an ambulance—he said, “I’ll eat if you take me to Baghdad. I want to be taken to Baghdad.” So they drove him all around the prison yard for about half an hour to a hospital that was about twenty feet from the prison cell, and let him out and said, “You’re in Baghdad,” and he started to eat. And then the doctor said, “Why’s this guy here?” and returned him to the prison, at which point he didn’t trust them very much anymore. He would always say, “I refuse.”
And there was this one guy, Hydrue Joyner, in his interview he clowned a lot. But he just kept saying, “I refuse. I refuse,” as he quoted him, and I thought, “He’s Bartleby.” He’s Bartleby, who says, “I would prefer not to.” And winds up in the tombs. And “I would prefer not to. I would prefer not to.” And I felt—at one point I say, this prisoner, maybe he’s the only truly free man at Abu Ghraib because he’s the only guy who in some ways is refusing the order of the place. And I say, we all made our accommodations. And at that point I do this “we,” I think it’s the second or third last line, but to include us—us way beyond the place who didn’t really have anything to do with it at the time. And he refused. Bartleby died. That great story of Melville’s [Bartleby the Scrivener] is really the original work of what now is known as “dissident literature,” but he died in the tombs. Melville had a better last line—what can I say? Alas Bartleby, alas humanity.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Now back to my interview with Philip Gourevitch, in his office.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Does religion enter into American policy, evidenced by the behavior of American military officials who gave directives to use religious beliefs, to make the abuse stronger or more effective?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: No. I think that the occupation of Iraq and the war on terror in general and the tactics that were used were based on a profound ignorance of the enemy. If we had substantial knowledge of the enemy, we would’ve been more subtle with the enemy, but we had very primitive and caricaturish views of who they were. And we vilified Muslim or Islamic practice or behavior, even as we sort of sought as something that we sort of sought to harness as their weak spots. But I don’t think that there was a real understanding there. Were Christian values brought to bear? Well obviously, I don’t think there are a lot of people who claim to have a grasp of Christian values who would describe the behavior at Abu Ghraib as being particularly Christian.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: No.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Was Christian rhetoric entangled in it? Yeah, sure. The Bush administration uses a lot of Christian rhetoric. It was not a great move to call this whole thing a crusade in the first days after September 11th. And it’s obvious that on one level, that word has a secular usage that we’re all familiar with, as just a kind of zealous battle. A mission. A big mission in our vernacular. But in the international world, it doesn’t. And it didn’t help that we had a lot of people walking around saying, “Oh! They’re trying to re-establish a caliphate, and we’re going to do this and that,” because what we basically did, it seems to me, we continuously played into the hands of a certain kind of bin Laden or Al-Qaeda-ish rhetoric. We did everything they wanted us to do. They would say, “They’re having a crusade,” and we would go, “Have a crusade.” They would say, they would set the terms, and we would accept their terms rather than rejecting their terms and saying, this is actually the manipulation of a population with nationalist and religious ideas that doesn’t really correspond to their motivations and their responses for the most part. There are obviously some religious zealots mixed in, but try to sort them out.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Probably not about religion at all, but about an entirely different agenda altogether.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, it was about a certain kind of dehumanization. But the problem was that at Abu Ghraib they didn’t know who these people were. They literally did not know who the prisoners were a great deal of the time. They had it wrong. So they would, you know, if you’re going to go and target somebody’s religion, it would help to know who he was.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Indeed it would.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: And how he feels about his religion. So if you just generically take him on as some kind of Muslim and presume that you know where that puts him and how he stands on it, maybe you’re making a Fundamentalist out of him where he wasn’t.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You mentioned in the conversation, “When we’re fighting terror with terror we need to look much closer.” It’s important to know which terrorist side we’re coming from.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well what I was saying is that when you fight terror with terror, how do you know which is which?
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You don’t always, do you?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, you don’t want to adopt the tactics of your enemy as your own.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Author Philip Gourevitch, on his collaborative book, Standard Operating Procedure with Producer/Director, Errol Morris, who I had a chance to speak with the other day in his Boston office by telephone.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In this particular episode of our series, “Rethinking Religion,” we’re focusing on literature and terror. Literature is broadly defined not just as the printed word or text, but also the literature of film. What would you say your definition of terrorism might be? Or terror? Or power, even? And I want to focus on the film Standard Operating Procedure.
ERROL MORRIS: Sure. I think of terrorism as radically destabilizing the order of the world as we know it. Of telling people essentially that they are deeply, deeply unsafe in ways they probably have not even imagined. It rends the social fabric and makes you question the nature of life itself. You know, we know that the various acts of terrorism in the United States, whether it was in Oklahoma or in New York were radically destabilizing. People who were confused, angry, upset, uncertain and you can go on and on and on with a whole series of adjectives.
But the main idea is to disrupt everything. Life going on in a complacent, ordinary way—to take that and to destroy it. So that things you take for granted, can no longer be taken for granted, can no longer be depended on. In one of the—for many people, myself included, one of the most appalling things about the war in Iraq—and this to me is completely independent of the question of should Saddam Hussein been removed from government? Was Iraq a rogue state, etc. etc. etc.? We know that the way in which the war was prosecuted destabilized an entire country. Created chaos and opened the door for instabilities of every kind that you could imagine, terrorism, of course being part of it. Whether you label the actual act of doing it in the first place, terroristic—
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Or the threat.
ERROL MORRIS: Or the threat, terroristic, or whether you simple label things that occur as a result of what we did, it really comes down to the same, same damn thing—destabilizing a world.
And that, maybe this is the activist part of me. I remember I was in Paris when the missiles were raining down on Baghdad, and I kept thinking good god this is a capital. What if they were raining missiles down on Paris? This is a capital where millions and millions of people live.
They have their homes, their families. They have their lives. How can we do such a thing? And those feelings haven’t changed very much over the years. I would say that I was appalled now as I was then.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Philip Gourevitch said in our interview, “it’s useful to be pissed off while writing or experience some kind of heat behind a topic.” Do you agree?
ERROL MORRIS: Well how could you avoid being pissed off? I mean the whole idea of equanimity and its balance strikes me as nonsense talk. You’re turning me into an activist. Look what you’re doing right now.
Because I was overwhelmed by all kinds of thoughts. I mean it’s not over with. We talk about it as though it’s in the past tense. But that itself is delusional thinking as well.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Still ongoing.
ERROL MORRIS: Still ongoing. I was outraged by many, many, many, many, many things. Part of the problem that I had—now this may not be appropriate for your radio show, and you can tell me if I’m off base here.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: OK.
ERROL MORRIS: Philip was of course interested in what happened in Abu Ghraib. I was interested in what happened in Abu Ghraib, but I was interested in another question. And the question is how Abu Ghraib, and the photographs that were taken at Abu Ghraib, were used to manipulate and to manage public opinion. That endlessly fascinated me.
Perhaps because a lot of the issues of the war seem to me not controversial. You know, was the Bush administration complicit in a criminal war? Yes! Did I particularly want to make yet one more movie about that fact? No! Not because I don’t believe it, but because I think there are other things to be said, things that interested me.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: The fact that the photographs of abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib were released in the media—who were they released by and to what end? What purpose? Were you able to ever really know?
ERROL MORRIS: I pretty much know, yes. I truly believe by the way in unintended consequences. One can do things without knowing for sure what the consequences of those actions or those decisions are going to be.
The public at large still is deeply confused about the photographs, what they mean, what they depict, how were they released. They’re confused about almost everything. Well let’s just put it this way. They have very strong beliefs about almost everything that may be just wrong. Completely wrong.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: What sort of beliefs?
ERROL MORRIS: The army never had any interest in releasing those photographs.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Yeah, one would not think.
ERROL MORRIS: They were turned over to CID by Joseph Darby, and in my view, CID was already aware of their existence. All they were concerned with was suppressing those photographs. And if they had their way, those photographs would never have been seen by anyone.
But there were two ways the photographs got out. None of them had anything to do really with Joseph Darby or with the military. No one wanted those photographs to be seen in the military. But once they were out, they were able to spin the photographs to their advantage. And I find that truly interesting.
That by making Darby the hero, we could then in turn make the various defendants, Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England, etc. etc., he could make them the master criminals.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: The fall guys.
ERROL MORRIS: The fall guys. I had this argument—we call it Errol Morris’ Perverse Argument—about the election in 2004. But my argument quite simply is that the Abu Ghraib photographs facilitated Bush’s reelection because it deflected attention from the administration and focused attention on the soldiers.
(AUDIO CLIP: From film, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE)
LYNNDIE ENGLAND: When I was in the brig, every single woman there, was in that brig because of a man—different reasons, yes, but it was because of a man. When you join the military, no matter what anybody says, its a man’s world.
(AUDIO CLIP: From film, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE)
SABRINA HARMAN [reading her own letter]: They sleep one hour, stay up for one hour, then sleep one hour. This goes on for 72 hours. It’s sad. Pictures were taken, you have to see them. A sandbag was put over their heads while it was soaked in hot sauce. OK, that’s bad. But these guys have info. We’re trying to get them to talk. That’s all.
ERROL MORRIS: One of the amazing things about Sabrina Harman in my movie, people don’t quite get it. They have a need to see it one way, so they just refuse to see it in any other way. They will return to the fact of her glee in torture despite the fact that she wrote letters to her girlfriend telling her that she was disturbed by what she was seeing.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Mmmhmm. Which you include in the film.
ERROL MORRIS: THAT’S WHAT MY FILM IS ABOUT! The focus ultimately really should be on the policies that led to this kind of stuff. The corruption of military values, the debasement of military service, the flagrant disregard for humanitarian conventions. And this is something that was not created by Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman!
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Nope, it came from much higher.
ERROL MORRIS: Yes, Indeed.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Yeah.
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah and I’m put in this very odd position whenever I speak about Abu Ghraib, because what people want you to do, and what you were yourself doing, is you’re telling me how disgraceful, how disgusting, how debased this place was. And you’re absolutely correct. It was!
It was a de facto concentration camp run by Americans in the middle of the Sunni triangle. But if you’re asking me also to be outraged by Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, I simply am not.
People have said that somehow because I tried to examine the details of how these photographs were taken, that I’m condoning torture. Which is hogwash.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Really? People say that?
ERROL MORRIS: I’ve heard someone say that.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: That’s a shock.
ERROL MORRIS: Just on the record, I do not condone torture.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Yeah that’s pretty clear—if anyone watches your movie, I think that’s pretty clear.
ERROL MORRIS: What I’m aware of is that Sabrina Harman found the body of a man who had been killed by the CIA. She was bothered by the fact. What she wrestled with is truly an interesting story, it just shows you how complex things are for an individual human being when confronted by evil.
They don’t talk to me about how debased, how criminal, how vile she was. They talk to me about the common soldier and this odd position that they found themselves in at Abu Ghraib.
What I remind myself of repeatedly is that there were all kinds of higher-ups who knew about this murder. And participated in a cover-up. And no one cares. No one cares!
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Certainly no one in a position of power appears to care.
ERROL MORRIS: It’s really across the board. None of the officers at Abu Ghraib. It’s all somehow not relevant to them and to their job.
I needed to make this movie. I still think about it. I think that the issues are very, very complex. How photography can be used in propaganda. How attention can be deflected through photography and propaganda from the real central issues at stake.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: And finally, how would you describe the project of Standard Operating Procedure working with Philip Gourevitch?
ERROL MORRIS: The great thing about the collaboration was that it gave someone to me, who was as involved as I was, it was someone to talk to, to talk about the material, to discuss the material, to reflect on the material. And that’s invaluable.
I think that we contributed to each other’s works in many, many, many different ways. Ultimately, Philip wrote that book and I made that movie. We have only ourselves ultimately to blame. But were there endless discussions, fruitful discussions, interesting discussions along the way? Absolutely.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: And what’s the outcome of the film? Any enigmas, riddles explained?
ERROL MORRIS: I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on film and photography and to tell a story which otherwise might not have ever been told. To tell a story about Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl, and these other soldiers who found themselves there. Because I think it’s an important story.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Finally, I asked Philip Gourevitch, his final thoughts on Terror, Religion, and Literature…
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Do you suppose it’s possible we might fight terrorism or prevent terrorism with ethics, values, or religious beliefs? Or is that just idealistic?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: No, of course it’s not idealistic. I think that, I don’t really think it would be religious beliefs. I think we can do it by presenting what America’s greatest strength is, which is a secular idea of citizenship. As a civic and political construction that is available to anybody who subscribes to our concept of citizenship.
It is on a very important level also a global struggle for public opinion. In that respect, the values that one projects, which are political, civil, legal values: respect for a certain kind of rule of law, for due process, for habeas corpus, for innocent until proven guilty, for not using torture, for respect for the individual body, for treating the enemy as an honorable adversary, rather than as a criminal vermin. All of these things can have a tremendous advantage because all of those things in their reverse become recruiting tools. Because what we are doing is we are dealing with people who are selling humiliation as the cause against which they’re fighting, and we are using humiliation against them, when in fact, it’s not working very well, has it?
NORRIS CHUMLEY: “Rethinking Religion” is a project of Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life in New York City. To hear the entire, unedited interviews with Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, as well as a short-summary edition, and for transcripts, visit our website at IRCPL.ORG. Many of our programs are recorded live in New York City. We invite you to join us, details at IRCPL.ORG.
We thank SONY Pictures Classis for permission to feature sound clips from the motion picture, Standard Operating Procedure, available on DVD and by download.
I’m Norris J. Chumley, for “Rethinking Religion.”
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