Many people have been struck by the story of the young woman from West Virginia, Lynndie England, who appears in several of the Abu Ghraib pictures. She’s twenty-one. Why is her apparent normalcy so disturbing? The Abu Ghraib photos point to something larger than the specific scenes caught on camera. One of the lessons of this tragedy, from a Buddhist standpoint, is that she is us. She could be our daughter or our niece or someone we might know. It’s not as if there were just a few bad apples in a big barrel of good apples. In the frenzy of war, cruelty becomes acceptable behavior. As a nation, we are putting all these good apples—our soldiers—into a very rotten barrel.
Buddhism emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world, and this “interbeing” has no limit. Since I am part of the system that produced this war and these atrocities, then I, too, share the blame.
What else do the scenes from Abu Ghraib reveal? They reveal an undeniable aspect of war that we would prefer to keep out of our view. The death and mutilation going on in Iraq right now are much worse, and on a much larger scale, than what we’re seeing in the photos. One of the oldest teachings in Buddhism is that violence begets violence. If you look at what has happened in the world since September 11, the level of violence has increased dramatically. Now we are encountering the bounds of “an eye for an eye.” As Gandhi said, that method will leave the whole world blind.
The prison guards are victims along with the prisoners. The guards have been overcome by fear and hatred, to the point of losing touch with their own humanity. They are not in their right minds. They have stopped thinking of the prisoners as fellow human beings.
Buddhism is known for advocating nonviolence. Is that realistic in this situation? Nonviolence is indeed at the core of Buddhism. The first precept of moral behavior is “Do not kill. Cherish all life.” Contemporary Buddhists believe that this principle is as applicable today as it was twenty-five hundred years ago. Nonviolence has a force of its own, not to be underestimated.
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