How Iraqis Relate To Shawshank

Has this happened to you?  Someone on Television espouses a point-of-view that is eerily similiar to your own.  If you had access to Larry King, maybe you would’ve got your thoughts out there first.  This happened to me a few years ago.
I had been catching parts of The Shawshank Redemption on Moviepix, a Canadian channel that showcases mainly older films.  It was presented in widescreen, something that, sadly, doesn’t happen often enough on TV.  I was always catching it either in the middle or close to the end and as I watched it on numerous occasions within the same week, something hit me.  There was a striking similiarity between the prisoners’ situation in the movie and what was taking place in Iraq.  So, I went to work on this piece.  It was sent to the New York Times Op-Ed page and as usual, their silence spoke volumes.
Later on, I showed it to my then-girlfriend who made some helpful corrections (small grammatical stuff) which, at first, because I’m anal, made me flip out.  Once I calmed down, I realized she improved the manuscript.  She loved it and was always supportive of my writing.  I’m trying to remember if I sent it in vain to The Hamilton Spectator or any other publication but I’m drawing a blank now.
Anyway, one night I was watching Bill Maher on Larry King Live and he, too, made the connection between the movie and the situation in Iraq.  I was stunned.  If the Times had published my piece, I’m certain he would’ve been quoting from my column.  That would’ve been the best, certainly a big boost for me.
Instead, I’m presenting the piece, as it was written in 2003, on my site.  Enjoy. 
By Dennis Earl

In The Shawshank Redemption, James Whitmore plays a long incarcerated murderer who finally gets paroled decades after his conviction. He moves into a small apartment and becomes a bag boy at a nearby grocery. But there’s a problem. He can’t cope living in the outside world. He’s been imprisoned for so long he can’t think for himself and adapt to his newfound freedom. His freedom ends up being short-lived. He hangs himself in his apartment.

I can’t help but feel the parallels between that character and the long-suffering Iraqi people in the real world. President Saddam Hussein is a lot like the warden played in the movie by Bob Gunton. He is unscrupulous and unrelenting in his actions. He loves power and proving to his people that he is firmly in charge.

In the movie, the warden is seen on the outside as an outstanding citizen while inside Shawshank Prison, he rules with an iron fist and is unanimously loathed. Only Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), an innocent accountant wrongly convicted of killing his wife’s lover, is aware of the warden’s biggest crime: cooking the books.

To anyone, like myself, who’s never had to be placed in a correctional facility, it would appear nonsensical for James Whitmore’s character to contemplate suicide after spending decades in a horribly enclosed hellhole. Why would anyone throw their life away after being freed? What we don’t realize is that being in prison, while terrible and soul-crushing, is very much a safe haven for directionless convicts. You get your 3 meals, your own bed, toilet, a chance to work (Whitmore’s character is a librarian) and even a period of outside recess every day you spend in the big house. In other words, it’s a routine that many prisoners adapt to very easily. You do the same things at the exact same times every single day. You don’t have to think and you don’t have to worry (except for potential harm from the guards or fellow prisoners). You merely follow the rules and you’re fine. Try to be a rebel (like Andy) and there’s trouble. Beatings, solitary confinement, humilation, psychological torture.

With Iraqis, it’s a similar situation. They’ve been held prisoner by Saddam since the early 1970s, even before he became their “official” leader. In the beginning, Saddam was benevolent, trying to make education a top priority, among other non-Islamic proposals. (Those who weren’t getting it or refused to were thrown in jail.) But inevitably, as the decade changed, so did Saddam’s tactics. The citizens were treated like the prisoners who stepped out of line in The Shawshank Redemption. There was rape, torture, murder, psychological mind games, the works.

Which brings us back to James Whitmore’s character in the movie. Once he leaves the harsh routine of prison life, he loses his grip on reality. It’s been so long since he’s actually had to take care of himself that he feels completely lost. It doesn’t help that he’s very old, has no friends in the outside world and is stuck with a demeaning job that would better suit a teenager. He had more respect as Shawshank’s librarian.

Morgan Freeman’s character, “Red”, the man who can get you things on the inside, goes through a similar ordeal when he is released near the end of the film. He starts to instantly relate to Whitmore’s dilemma after moving into his old friend’s apartment and taking over his job. Red has spent so much time in prison following orders that he frequently asks his boss at the grocery store permission to use the restroom. The boss tries to convince him that he doesn’t have to ask, he can just go whenever he needs to. But it’s difficult for Red. Like Whitmore, he’s used to the routine of prison life. It’s not easy to adapt to a less-hostile environment. It’s hard for us on the outside to relate to this, but you can’t just become a new, free-thinking, self-assured person after spending decades in excruciating confinement. After all these years, you get used to the routine no matter how unpleasant certain aspects of it might be. That’s why Red can’t relieve himself without a superior’s approval. Routine is the rhythm of life.

And this is the dilemma Iraqis will find themselves involved with once Gulf War 2 is over. After decades of living in an open prison, how easy will it be for them to throw away their traditions in favour of a free and democratic new beginning? As we know, Iraq is a tribal nation filled with Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, all vying for control of the country. Saddam Hussein was well aware of this which is why he ruled with an iron fist. The chances of him being overthrown internally were extremely doubtful, also, thanks to his clever tactics. It is well known that he killed those who thought differently than him. Plus, he surrounded himself with an excellent army.

Transforming Iraq into a Western Arab State will be as difficult as any long-term prisoner adapting to his newfound freedom. The Iraqi people will not miss Saddam’s terrible methods of running his country, but they will miss the routine. When you’ve suffered as long as they have under his rule, it becomes oddly normal. The poverty, the hunger, the lack of human rights, the despair and, most importantly, the constant fear of Saddam’s wrath. Can these citizens truly embrace hope and a future of happiness and potential prosperity after a long period of devastation? In The Shawshank Redemption, Red resists the temptation to re-offend in order to be sent back to the familiar routine of prison life. Instead, he skips town and meets up with Andy to start a new life with a trusted ally. That’s something James Whitmore didn’t have when he was released. Will the Iraqis have the full support of the United States to start their new journey?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, March 10, 2006
1:43 a.m.

Published in: on March 10, 2006 at 1:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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