Melissa Smyth

One day after the release of the Senate report on CIA's torture programs, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed by Army veteran Eric Fair entitled “I Can’t be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib.” Fair, who has been publishing doleful public confessions of his participation in the Abu Ghraib torture program for years, draws a pathetic picture of himself as a still-repenting and increasingly wise character in a post-Iraq American landscape.

I can’t be forgiven: the inherent idiosyncrasy of such a statement lies not in its self-deprecation, but in that Fair is the only person invested in his forgiveness, pushing forward his own case in the wake of much more structural implications. Though he subtitles the piece “The Torture Report Reminds Us of What America Was,” he makes only brief mention of the report after updating the public on his recent career moves, and the emotional work he has since undertaken.

The incredible naiveté of the thought that the information included in the Senate Committee Study on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program describes what America was—that such practices represented a blip, a system running itself over, rather than manifestations endemic to an imperialist state—underlie Fair’s attempts to distinguish who he is now from who he was then. 

Fair’s narcissistic project is outrageous in the simple sense that he is a war criminal who holds a comfortable university job and enjoys the public accolade of publishing his personal tales of attrition in one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the world. A man who once made his career torturing people now makes it reminiscing about his days as an interrogator. 

Yet neurotic appeals for forgiveness aside, Fair continues to miscarry the burden of the torturer that he claims to bear. Bemoaning his insomnia, his failing family life and the odd discomfort that comes with transgression that we call guilt, he makes only passing mention of those whose bodies he maimed, whose psyches he terrorized, whose very being he colonized. Their presence in his memory serves only to add color to his spectacular tales of repentance. 

In his first Washington Post piece (which glaringly lacks any use of the word “torture”), Fair details a nightmare, featuring “a man with no face,” his torture victim whose name he has “long since forgotten.” The man’s pleas for help sicken him. “He screams,” Fair writes, “but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.” Such attempts to equate his suffering with the suffering he inflicted, to rhetorically poach even the screams of the faceless, nameless man, reveal the incredible shallowness of Fair’s alleged transformation.

Fair’s tactics closely resemble state appeals to sympathy, to patriotism driven by fear and “how immediate the threat felt” in 2001. In her forward to the Senate Report, Chairman Dianne Feinstein invokes her experience of September 11 of that year: “I recall vividly watching the horror of that day, to include the television footage of innocent men and women jumping out of the World Trade Center towers to escape the fire. These images, and the sounds as their bodies hit the pavement far below, will remain with me for the rest of my life."

The brazen arrogance of inserting one’s own emotions into such a discussion reinforces the preponderance of the privileged viewing class in American warfare—those who, in Susan Sontag’s words, “have the luxury of patronizing reality.”1 Feinstein expresses anguish only at the American lives lost; the countless others massacred by the United States since factor in only as evidence in her critique of the sheer unprofessionalism of the CIA. Yet she is simply haunted by the reality that she feels she felt through her television screen on September 11, and this is somehow relevant to the illegal torture and imprisonment systems that the United States runs across the world.

Fair’s supposed critique falls mute on two accounts. First, his unconvincing performance of humility—denying his right to the title Professor—comes nowhere close to absolving him. Not only does he avoid more appropriate questions regarding his right to mere freedom, but also falsely assumes that naming his privileges excuse his continued abuse of them. The remorse he espouses is simply incompatible with his practice of patronizing others’ suffering—suffering he enacted. The very idea of war literature produced by US veterans is repulsive and paradoxical, yet indicative of the net of fallacy in which the US media cradles its militarized hypocrisy. Through it, Fair has tacitly slipped from the real arena of war to the mediated arena, reassuming his place among the viewing, and writing, class. 

Second, the logic he presents extends nowhere beyond his own penitence. Even in damning his own participation in the war, his conclusion is strikingly banal: “that this country isn’t always something to be proud of.” Such a statement seems more appropriate for a critique of national emissions standards, or perhaps a poor performance in the Olympics. His self-centered focus, bolstering the state’s interest in the individual perpetrator figure, serves only as the artifice of dissent that concretizes the status quo. In April, he suggested that the detainees he worked on “deserved far worse than what we delivered,” but continues his confessions in hope of scrubbing the “stain” on his soul. His cowardly entreaties for forgiveness—from himself, primarily—clearly stem from no point of empathy, or even concentrated scrutiny. Any engagement with the events that occurred at Abu Ghraib and around the world at the hands of pawns like himself must necessarily lead to a firm critique of state violence, and the ideologies and structures that enact it. If his experience has not lead him to do this work, then out of respect for the lives he has mutilated, the most basic form of liability should inspire him to keep his abhorrent pathos to himself. 

1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 111.

Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with a concentration in visual culture and photographic representation. She holds degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here: