John Buell

Torture and Hidden Injuries of Class

Even the mainstream media now wonder how far up the chain of command the torture scandal goes. If low-level guards are to serve prison terms, what is to happen to officers who authorized or at least must have known of these abuses? If military rank should occasion further questions, so should class.

The guards now facing courts martial are all, save one, white working class. Under the Nuremberg precedents, low-level working-class guards are accountable for their acts even if directly ordered to torture prisoners.

Over the years jingoism and racism have been deeply implicated in actions of some white American working-class citizens, actions that merit sanctions. Nonetheless, working-class schools, local communities, workplaces and governments are often guilty of encouraging moral passivity. At their best, many fail to support more generous understandings of other cultures and even of oneself.

In a thoughtful column for the London-based Guardian, Gary Younge argues that one guard's defense "that she was made to pose for the pictures is only relevant in so far as it implies more senior people were involved. Who (the guards) are is no defense for what they did. Indeed, who they are enabled what they did. It is one of the hallmarks of colonialism that the poorest, least powerful citizen of an occupying nation can wield enormous power in an occupied territory. A former chicken-plant worker can humiliate virtually any Iraqi she wants precisely and only because she is American in Iraq. Once she returns to America she reverts to the bottom of the pile."

Younge is on to something, but the phrase "reverts to the bottom of the pile" isn't adequate to the full paradoxes and dilemmas of white working-class life. Even at home, white working-class citizens enjoy some degree of privilege. By such vital indicators as infant mortality, prison sentences for comparable offenses, traffic stops and police searches, similarly positioned whites are better off than their African American counterparts.

America is hardly colorblind. And many working-class whites understand their working lives, albeit inadequately compensated, have at least made them part of a favored nation and people.

But in their work places, many whites also suffer indignities and exploitation that Younge's phrase doesn't fully capture. Life in most chicken plants is reminiscent of 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes's state of nature -- nasty, brutish and short. One cannot complain without fear of losing the job, hours are long, overtime is forced and disabling occupational injuries a fact of life. For many these are the only jobs available -- hence the lure of the military.

Physical abuse may be a less prevalent, though often underestimated, aspect of working class life, but other forms of abuse are widespread. Abuse is written into the fabric of our laws. Under labor law in my home state of Maine, workers can be discharged without reason and have no recourse to the courts. One local employer, a nonprofit no less, now even requires employees to sign a statement acknowledging that they can be fired at will, thereby adding insult to the injury of working-class status. On the national level, employers routinely fire employees who support unionization, a violation of the Wagner Act. Nonetheless, small fines and weak enforcement make crude abuses cost effective. (Whether giving employers such "flexibility" is the best way to build a better state of national business climates will be the subject of a future column.)

As the torture scandal unfolds, journalists must ask more questions about the chain of command and about the biographies of the defendants. Were they specifically ordered to perform these acts and were there sanctions for failure to perform? What had their own working backgrounds told them about the failure to obey a boss or the consequences of being fired? And what about their own civic education? Many US public schools do a reasonable job imparting democratic values, but poor and working class schools do the least adequate job in this regard.

One working class guard, a former car mechanic from rural Pennsylvania, did blow the whistle and it would be interesting to obtain more biographical information on his working life. Circumstances seldom fully excuse any act, but if saying no to superiors entails grave economic sacrifice or even risk of severe punishment, surely that is a mitigating circumstance. Judges and the public need to know if exercising common decency in the military requires an act of heroism.

Punishment duly cognizant of mitigating circumstances is appropriate. But the larger political task is to address both the constraints and the conceits of some working class lives. If destructive and demeaning forms of racism and jingoism are rightly to be critiqued, this must also be in the context of enabling the working class more voice in their own workplaces and communities. In addition, workers in the world's wealthiest nation deserve more time and space to pursue individual hobbies, interests, and goals and thereby fashion personal meanings not dependent on stigmatizing others.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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