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With Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Kaethe Morris Hoffer, a feminist attorney, explores equality, justice, and the complexities of living in a world in which power is abused and gendered.

Does Rush Have a Point?
©Kaethe Morris Hoffer, 2004

Rush Limbaugh, apologist extraordinaire for the Bush Administration, recently commented on the treatment of Iraqi detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Rush: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release?"

Mr. Limbaugh's justifications are sickening and absurd. On the other hand, he has finally said something that should not be ignored. Specifically his assertion that the documented abuse of Iraqi prisoners is akin to the initiation rites of Skull and Bones (the Yale secret society which claims both George W. Bush and John Kerry as alumni). Although the purpose of Rush's argument was to minimize the harm suffered by Iraqi prisoners, he has stumbled upon something important in comparing what happened in Abu Ghraib to hazing practices common to many American fraternities, military academies, and sports teams.

Last summer three members of a high school football team from New Jersey were sodomized with broomsticks and other objects by older teammates, while at training camp. In September, a 16-year-old cadet at New York Military Academy was "hazed" by being beaten with socks stuffed with bars of soap and a lock, knocking out a tooth and causing other head injuries. Just last month at Arizona State University, photos surfaced which showed current fraternity pledges being sexually degraded and whipped-some of the pictures showed visible welting on their bare buttocks. This spring in Iowa, a Cornell College fraternity was placed on probation after pledges were held in a wet basement, with no working shower or toilet, and forced to go without any sleep from February 26 to February 28. Last March, an 18-year-old died after being forced to take part in a drinking game by the fraternity he was pledging in upstate New York. And who can forget last Fall's ubiquitous video of girls from a high school in Illinois being tormented with buckets of filth and beatings about their heads-all inflicted on them by girls who had apparently endured similar treatment the year before.

There are obviously significant differences between young people tortured by classmates with whom they are voluntarily associating, and Iraqis being detained by the United States military. But there are also significant and chilling similarities between the physical, mental, and frequently sexualized abuse of young people in certain American organizations, and the horrific treatment of Iraqi detainees. Whether abuse is the price of imprisonment or the dues for membership in a respected organization, forcing a person to endure physical harm, mental torment, or sexualized humiliation is harmful. And fundamentally, acts of rape, forced humiliation, physical beatings, and the like, are toxic to humans-and do serious damage to victims and aggressors.

But why should we care that many American hazing practices mirror what happened in Abu Ghraib? One reason is that the men and women who inflicted the well-documented torture in Iraq may themselves be survivors of physical, mental, and sexual abuse through hazing. Their willingness to degrade other humans, their tolerance for acts of torture and humiliation, their active support for scenarios which cry out for intervention and prevention, may have been learned when they were themselves subjected to, and not rescued from, abuse and torment.

Of course they're still responsible for their actions (and I hope they-and their chain of command-will be held accountable), but a truer understanding of what happened in Abu Ghraib could help us better prevent such abuse in the future. It may be true that the majority of US troops have not engaged in or tolerated such abuse, but it would be criminally naive to believe that what happened there was completely aberrant and unpredictable, given the well-documented existence of sanctioned and tolerated abuse in the US military (Tailhook, anyone? The Air Force Academy rape scandal? Need I go on?).

The abuse suffered by the men and women detained in Abu Ghraib was of a different order of magnitude than the abuse inflicted upon most young Americans in fraternities and sports teams and the military every year. Most hazing in the US doesn't rise to the level of physical, mental, or sexual assault. But for survivors of forced sodomy, like the football players from New Jersey, or the rape survivors of the Air Force Academy, the greatest difference between what was done to them and what was done in Iraq may very well be the absence of photographic evidence of their torture.

Take a moment to consider the damage that has been done to the men and women whose abuse you are now privy to because of the photos splashed across your TV screen. Consider that beyond the physical pain, the humiliation, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the anxiety, and the depression that they are likely to be dealing with, they are people who have been shown, by example, how to dehumanize and degrade other humans. If their abuse is tolerated, or minimized, or sanctioned, it will teach them that torture is an acceptable fact of life, and they may come to tolerate and sanction-and perhaps even participate in-similar torture against others.

Rush Limbaugh may be right when he asserts that what happened in Abu Ghraib is simply a better-documented example of what happens in American fraternities. But he could not be more wrong than when he models tolerance of the behavior there. I don't know how or why he came to be such a celebrant of abusive actions, but I grieve whatever led him to accept torture as the byproduct of people "having a good time." Humans are not destined to treat others the way the detainees in Iraq were treated, and abuse like they suffered is wrong wherever, by whomever, and for whatever purpose it is meted out.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer
[email protected]



Kaethe is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois. She served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois from 1999 to 2003, where she chaired the Commission's Violence Reduction Working Group. She is co-author of the Gender Violence Act.



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