16 Dec 2014
December 16, 2014

Rape in war, in black and white

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The tragic events in Sydney yesterday won’t return to our front pages. People’s opinions will mainly be formed today from quick inferences and possibly-significant fragments. Would the attack have taken place if ISIS didn’t exist? Should the suspect have been given bail on his murder-accessory charge? Is there much more we, the Australians or anyone else can do about these horrors?

But already Sydney’s off the front pages and Peshawar’s on them. 126 dead, mainly children, in a Taliban attack. That’ll have a short shelf-life too. Where are those girls in Northern Nigeria, by the way? Gone, that’s where. The CAR? What car’s that, then?

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I really simply want to flag the fact that people make their judgements about these things very fast. Inquiries take years and often simply state the clunkingly obvious anyway. On the other hand, people have heuristic models, if you will, in their heads and once the front page has come and gone, these models serve as the basis for judgement. Then it’s on to the next thing.

A common feature of these models in white people’s minds in this country is that European or, say, Australian lives are worth a great more than Pakistani or African ones. These moral maps, which we carry in our heads, are nevertheless usually our best human effort to get to grips with, to make judgements about and therefore ostensibly have some kind of control over, events. And it’s not all bad, either. There’s a wide moral map consensus on rape, for example. Rape, we all agree, is more about power and humiliation than it is about sex, and we rightly regard it as the signifier of complete moral collapse – whether it’s in a person or an army. There are people (black Africans only, obviously) who’ve been locked up for years without conviction at the International Criminal Court on charges of allowing soldiers to rape. Indeed rape as a weapon of war is, when we can get out of our ‘one white European life equals a hundred black African ones’ mindset, possibly the worst evil known to us today.

Yet our response to the CIA revelations last week suggests we are viewing the whole business through that very mindset. How else to understand why the papers have elected to refer to anal rape as ”rectal feeding”? Were the prisoners being given genteel enemas? No, they were not. They were being tied down and having  ‘the largest tube we have‘ repeatedly forced up and down their up their anus in a way designed to cause prolapses, ruptures, internal damage and excruciating pain. That’s rape, lads. It was done with a specific military purpose. And the people – agents, soldiers or doctors – who carried it out or assisted are criminals. It really is as simple as that.

Dick Cheney thinks the rape policy was fine, as long as it got results. And he’s not just talking about murderers, by the way; he’s talking about the innocent too. By any standards, that makes him – as the VP of the day, telling us he knew about and justified rape as a weapon of war on his watch – an international criminal. I mean that quite literally. The pro ‘rape-as-a-weapon-of-war’ view of the former vice-president of the United States of America is the most nauseating thing I’ve ever read. No US general would tolerate a single instance of this criminal behaviour amongst their soldiers because they know what it means – it means you’re debased and your moral purpose is destroyed.  As a force for good, you’re finished. In justifying rape by referring to the protection of the American people at their most perilous time, Cheney’s words do precisely the opposite from his claimed intent. They imperil Americans and risk removing their moral superiority over their terrorist enemies.

At a more modest level, the UK’s Lord West – former Labour Security minister and former head of Defence Intelligence – says there is “no point” in a full inquiry into possible UK complicity in, you know, rape. If we were aware of any raping or suchlike going on, there wasn’t very much of it; just “the odd case,” you see. Here, it’s instructive to remove the euphemisms (‘this’, ‘that sort of thing’), and replace them in his comments with ‘rape’.

There’s an important debate to be had about what interrogation measures are acceptable in pursuit of what objectives. I’m on the harsh side, to be perfectly honest. But wherever we stand in that debate as individuals, rape must lie outside it.

And being held to account by the international community? Don’t be daft. That’s just for black Africans.