Why would any impartial observer be surprised that the United States has placed prisoners of war under the control of unfit keepers? What happened in Abu Ghraib jail could have been predicted. One only has to look at how the United States permits children to be mistreated in order to understand the mistreatment of captured enemy combatants. Look at the schools. Look at youth facilities purportedly aimed at "straightening kids out." Look at custodial settings where adjudicated adolescents are warehoused. These must be considered if one wants to understand human cruelty in context.
In 22 states schoolchildren can be beaten with boards and injured in order to "teach them to behave." In some of those states, Texas for instance, teachers enjoy statutory immunity against civil suits filed by injured victims. Is it any wonder that the teaching profession in such places is a magnet for the unfit and the incompetent? Should anyone doubt that marginal people would be attracted to a profession where their worst habits are tolerated, even protected?
The kid fixers
In the US, there is minimal government regulation of private "ranches," "academies" and "camps" that promise the gullible that they can fix everything, real or imaginary, that's wrong with the youth of today. Like the gold rush in the days of the Wild West, the kid-fixing industry is a mother lode, and the unscrupulous have staked their claims. Some kid fixers display religious symbols on their stationery and at the entrances of their places of business, and they are quick to tell you with a smile they are doing God's work -- a claim that usually works like magic, like having a free pass. If they injure of kill a child in Utah or Arizona -- which has happened-- they call it an unfortunate accident or God's will and carry on. At worst, they close shop and reopen under a new name in Missouri where anyone, including a convicted felon, is welcomed into the private education business, no questions asked. Some operators gain an even greater measure of freedom from oversight by setting up operations in Mexico, in the Caribbean or in eastern Europe.
Teens in detention
Once a child has been officially labeled (and demonized) as a "juvenile delinquent," no holds are barred. He can be placed under the control of persons with zero educational or health-care qualifications. He can be made to do push-ups and jumping jacks until his joints virtually scream with pain and his muscles seize. He can be run or marched to exhaustion, be sleep deprived, be required to remain seated in a chair for 5 hours without bathroom breaks, and if he fails to show gratitude to his taskmasters, be placed naked in an isolation cell for days. He can be handcuffed to a pole. He can be taunted until he reacts, then be "restrained" with deadly force. He can be left hog-tied for hours on a concrete floor in a puddle of his own urine. On January 20, 2004 in the California Youth Authority, a teenager was pinned face down on the floor, repeatedly punched in the head, then pepper sprayed in the face by his keepers because, they later explained, he had provoked them. The implicit message that underlies such mistreatment is simple: Fear and obey authority, or authority will make your life unbearable.
Geneva Convention rules apply to none of the above.
It is encouraging these days to witness displays in high places of moral outrage over the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. We've been reassured that reforms are being implemented, and hopefully there won't be a repetition. But who is apologizing to our own abused children? When will someone among our elected representatives seize the moment to demand an end to the abuses children suffer? Surely the epidemic mistreatment of children deserves an official probe at the highest levels, a demand for honest answers and some serious media attention. Maybe if we do a better job of protecting children now, they'll be less likely to harm others when they are grown and take jobs in places like Abu Ghraib. Surely Americans in positions of power and influence will add this to their list of things to do. But when?
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