When I heard that U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Charles Graner was sentenced to ten years in military prison for abusing prisoners-of-war at Abu Ghraib, I immediately thought of “In the Penal Colony,” a famous short story published by Franz Kafka in 1919.
In this stark story, a prison officer is demonstrating a high-tech torture device to a mysterious visitor. This device is designed to kill prisoners over a period of twelve hours by slowly writing a few corrective words — such as “Honor Thy Superiors”, or “Be Just” — directly into their bodies with mechanical needles implanted in a harrow over a bed where the prisoner lies, biting on a stub of felt for relief.
The officer demonstrates the method to the visitor by executing a prisoner for the crime of falling asleep on duty. This short story might be mistaken for a simple indictment of torture, but every Franz Kafka story cuts at least two ways. In fact, the officer seems to suffer from his own feelings of guilt and inferiority, and he squirms uncomfortably as he tries to explain the virtues of his sadistic machine. The mysterious visitor seems to be an inspector of some kind, and the officer intuits that his beloved torture machine, once a popular device, might now be considered too barbaric in the fast-changing modern world.
The machine is also defective and overly complicated, and some Kafkaesque comedy ensues when the needles stick and the prisoner throws up all over the machinery. The story reveals its purpose when the visitor admits that he finds the machine revolting, despite the officer’s labored efforts to present it in its best light. The officer reacts by suddenly throwing himself into the works, killing himself the same way he’d killed so many others before him. The machine finally breaks during this last demonstration, failing to release the officer’s bloody, mashed remains into a pit.
The reader is left to remember the officer’s weak attempt at justification. He insists that the machine has curative powers for society and even for its victims, and he reminisces about older days when eager crowds would gather to watch criminals die: “How we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally attained and already passing away! What times we had, my friend!”
Charles Graner is also feeding the media with a few weak attempts at justification for the practices he oversaw at Abu Ghraib. After receiving his sentence, CNN reports, “Graner turned to his attorney and said, ‘That’s what makes the world go around,’ and laughed slightly.”
Like Kafka’s officer, Graner understands the ambiguity of his actions. “There were a lot of things we did that were screwed up,” he said on the witness stand. “If you didn’t look at it as funny, you couldn’t deal with it.”
And, like Kafka’s officer, Graner now finds himself on the other side of the justice system. He worked as a career prison guard in Pennsylvania before becoming a prison guard in Iraq. He will now be a prisoner of the U. S. for ten years, after which he will be released from the Army with a dishonorable discharge.
Kafka didn’t allow his readers to blame the middle-ranking officer for the torture system in his story, and likewise it doesn’t seem very useful to blame Charles Graner for much either. I’d like to know what you think about this resolution — does this conviction solve anything, in your opinion?