The words ‘Abu Ghraib’ have become synonymous with torture, a black eye for the United States that has damaged America’s national security.
The policy of ripping children away from their parents at the border is a new black mark on America that could also undermine US national security.
America’s power comes from its values: Freedom, the rule of law, respect for human rights. Whatever problems America may face at home, America’s democratic system enables itself to correct wrongs in the pursuit of a fair, just society. Whatever mistakes the US makes in its foreign policy, America still endeavours to infuse its foreign policy with these values. When America does not live up to these values, it is less safe.
The experience of the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib is instructive. After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it used Saddam Hussain’s jail as a place to torture Iraqi prisoners. The torture of prisoners — the picture of a US soldier holding a naked man on a leash, for instance — became international symbols that shattered America’s image as a global defender of human rights.
These illegal acts hurt US national security. Abu Ghraib was used as a rallying cry by terrorist groups who were fighting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one US military interrogator wrote: “I learnt in Iraq that the No 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo”
Today, America is in a moral crisis as its government takes children away from undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers at the US border. It is difficult to imagine something crueller than taking a child away from parents. These people are often fleeing violence and danger and are in search of a better life. The sounds of children crying in US jails while guards crack jokes are eerily evocative of US guards at Abu Ghraib posing smiling for pictures with naked Iraqi prisoners in humiliating positions.
As George Takei — who was imprisoned by the US government in an internment camp as a child during the Second World War — pointed out, not even those Japanese-Americans imprisoned during the war were separated from their parents. In America today, border agents reportedly told parents their children were getting bathed and then never came back, evoking Nazis taking away children in death camps and telling people being led to the gas chambers that they were going to take a shower.
This inhumane policy will also damage US security. Ripping children away from their families invites criticism from the international organisations charged with upholding human rights. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called Trump’s policy “unconscionable”.
Ripping children away from their families decimates America’s ability to hold accountable human rights abusers. The condemnations by US President Donald Trump’s administration of human rights violations in other countries seems meaningless, and those countries are likely to point to US policy as a counter-argument. Furthermore, just as the world grapples with an ongoing refugee crisis, others may try to emulate this policy and point to the US as a model for this horrific behaviour.
Ripping children away from their families could also become a rallying cry for America’s adversaries. Like Abu Ghraib, the images of children in cages and the sounds of crying children make for powerful propaganda for anyone opposed to America — terrorist groups, authoritarian countries, and others who seek to paint a picture of an evil America.
Perhaps most damaging of all, ripping children away from their families will tarnish America’s image. Without living up to its values, America’s massive economic and military is far less potent. If allies do not believe that America upholds fundamental moral standards, support for those alliances will crumble. If partners no longer see America living up to its democratic ideals, America will surrender its ability to work with those countries to solve global problems.
Seeking a better life
The Trump administration has already abandoned America’s traditional support for human rights abroad. The administration announced it is withdrawing the US from the UN Human Rights Council, the main international organisation charged with defending human rights.
America has always attracted people seeking a better life. This is a nation of immigrants, and immigration makes America stronger.
However, policies like forced family separations can deal powerful blows to America’s image as a beacon for those around the world yearning for a better life. Whatever one’s views on immigration policy, it seems an unqualified negative to turn America into a country known for its state-sanctioned human rights abuses instead of its admirable ideals.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Michael H Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs.