While Philip Gourevitch was covering the 2004 presidential campaign for The New Yorker, shocking photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib incited a media frenzy.
Four years and 1.5 million words worth of interview transcripts later, Gourevitch has published a book on the American soldiers’ experiences in Abu Ghraib. At the weekly human rights workshop in the Law School Faculty Lounge, Gourevitch — who is the editor of The Paris Review and an acclaimed author — spoke to more than 60 law students, undergraduates and professors about the policy implications of the Abu Ghraib photos.
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Gourevitch centered his talk on his book, “Standard Operating Procedure,” which tells the story behind the Abu Ghraib photographs.
But rather than focusing on the vilification of American soldiers responsible for the scandal, Gourevitch said he was more interested in the big picture.
“What concerned me was the American story: I do think of the American soldiers as instruments of a great injustice, but also as victims of a policy totally un–mapped out,” he said. “The solution is best documented by their eyewitness accounts.”
The atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib, he said, were the result of a policy created in the highest levels of the United States government.
Although not actually an order, the policy was a clear license to use any means necessary to obtain information from Iraqi prisoners, he said. The new policy reinterpreted the law to break the law, exploiting the Article Five loophole in the Geneva Convention that allows the indefinite holding of spies without charges, Gourevitch explained.
“It’s a story that I think is sordid, a story that shames us,” he said. “Therefore our response is to look away.”
But, Gourevitch cautioned, it would be dangerous to ignore this “stain” on the American conscience. He went on to discuss the negative effect this policy has had on America’s role as a global leader.
“If America loses its moral authority everybody is in worse shape,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be permanent.”
Today, there is growing sense for American politicians to reengage and cooperate with the international community, he said. There is evidence that the government is “feeling the need to re-enter some type of league of nations,” he added.
Claire Pavlovic ’07 LAW ’11 said she was impressed by the talk, mainly because Gourevitch has played such an influential role in developing her interest in humanitarian law.
Another law student, Sam Ferguson, LAW ’09, said it was “refreshing in the Law School to not have a lawyer speak.”
“Instead of spending hours debating what defines torture, Gourevitch operates on the obvious premise that torture is wrong and illegal,” he said. “Gourevitch focuses on answering: How did we get to this point?”
In April, Gourevitch’s co-author, Errol Morris, released a documentary sharing both the title and interviews used in “Standard Operating Procedure.”