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We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers and sisters.

–Martin Luther King

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In This Issue:

  • Lynching and Torture: Then and Now by David Budbill
  • Sign a Petition of Apology and Grief to the Iraqi People

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David Budbill

What is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to
commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens?

John Lewis


in the Forward to
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

Many of you may have heard the feature on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday (5/8) about lynching, based on an exhibition called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. I first came across this exhibit, and book, a few years ago, so I was especially interested to hear what NPR would do with the subject. I was wondering whether they’d make any connection between the lynching photographs and the recent photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They didn’t.

I urge all who read this to go to the Without Sanctuary website at: and spend some serious time there. What you see there will illuminate the pictures you have been seeing from Abu Ghraib prison.

One of the stunning parallels between the lynching photographs and the Abu Ghraib prison photographs is that there are photographs. Someone thought it necessary and good to record the events on film. In both situations, I believe, the photographs were taken for the same reason: to record a deed well done. In the case of the lynchings, the photographs also served the primary purpose of lynchings, to keep The Niggers in their place and to make them quake in fear before the superiority of “The Great White Race,” as Langston Hughes put it more than once.

Another parallel is that in many of the photos from both places there are spectators to the crimes. As Leon F. Litwack says in his essay “Hellhounds,” included in Without Sanctuary,“In most lynchings, no member of the crowd wore a mask, nor did anyone attempt to conceal the names of the perpetrators.” The spectators were glad, in fact proud, to be there. Whole families went to see the lynching or the burning. Parents wrote notes for their children to excuse them from school so they could attend the “festivities.” Many of the lynching photographs were manufactured as picture postcards so they could be mailed to friends or Aunt Mary.

Yet another parallel is the arrogant and celebratory mood of the people in the photographs. Here again is Litwack, “The use of the camera to memorialize lynchings testified to their openness and to the self-righteousness that animated the participants.” In this context, one thinks especially of the photo from Abu Ghraib of the two American soldiers giving the thumbs up sign.

There is one stark difference, however, between the photos from Abu Ghraib prison and the lynching photos. All the lynching photos are of corpses, maimed and mutilated, scorched and burned. None of the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison are of dead people-at least none we have seen yet.

The photographs of lynchings and the ones from Abu Ghraib are a grizzly tour through a portion of our collective psyche that George Bush swears does not exist. He said exactly that on May 7th when speaking of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, “This isn’t the America we know. They present a picture that doesn’t exist.”

Take a look at Without Sanctuary, at what you see from Abu Ghraib, and tell me those pictures don’t exist, tell me they aren’t a part of our collective psyche.

This administration’s insistence that these atrocities are the actions of “a few bad apples” is yet another way we continue to deny our real past and to buy into the myth of American exceptionalism. It is also a tried and true, classic and transparent, way those in power, the higher-ups, pass the buck to their underlings.

It’s true that neither George Bush nor Donald Rumsfeld tortured any prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Ordinary soldiers did that. Again here is Leon Litwack, “… hate and fear transformed ordinary white men and women into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers.” How did this happen? It must be that the people in those lynching pictures–both the witnesses and the perpetrators–lived in a society that in subtle and obvious ways not only permitted lynchings but condoned, encouraged and approved them.

Very shortly after 9/11 George Bush announced “Operation Infinite Justice,” his catch phrase for the war on terror. It was, the catch phrase says, sanctioned by “the infinite,” in other words, a Crusade–just like earlier Crusades when Christians went to the Middle East to convert the heathen infidel, the hated Muslim, either by The Book or by the sword.

As early as a few weeks after 9/11 the Bush administration, by their words, began preparing American society for the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. It was clear to everyone that this war was to be George Bush’s holy war, a war of good against evil, a war against the infidel, the barbarian, the ultimate threat to the American way of life, a war against The Nigger.

And Donald Rumsfeld’s announcement, also shortly after 9/11, that the United States would no longer consider the Geneva Convention’s rules for prisoners of war applicable to the United States, also helped prepare us–both our soldiers in Iraq and we here at home–for those pictures.

Torture of the enemy, the hated other – the “evil doers” as George Bush would say – has always been part of racial or ethnic warfare. The examples are myriad: Japanese against Chinese, Chinese against Koreans, American settlers against Native Americans, Hutus against Tutsis, Israeli Jews against Palestinian Arabs, in the Sudan right now Arab Muslims against African Muslims, and Americans against Iraqis. Denying, as George Bush does, that this kind of behavior has a deep and long standing place in both our past and our present guarantees that the problem will continue.

Until we can get away from our self-righteousness, until we can stop denying our past and our present, until we stop making excuses for ourselves, until we can openly admit to these crimes–and to that dark place in all of humanity from which we Americans are not exempt–we are condemned to continue down our present path to disaster.


Editor’s Note: Quotations from John Lewis and Leon F. Litwack come from Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, Twin Palms Publishers, © 2000, P.O. Box 10229, Sante Fe, NM 87504-1022.
Quotations from George Bush come from National Public Radio.

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Visit the Without Sanctuary website at:


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You can sign a petition of apology and grief for the chaos and destruction America has brought to Iraq. When a good amount of signatures have been collected the petition will be sent to Al Jazeera, and other Iraqi papers. To sign the petition, go to: