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The prison of prejudice
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It’s one thing to read about the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, the sadism, the meanness, the degradation. It’s another to learn what we knew about the people behind the acts - and how the military signed them up anyway.

Before going to Iraq, one reservist (a former Marine, roused by 911 to reenlist) was arrested for harassing his ex-wife, who he admitted dragging around by her hair, a woman who had to issue three protective orders against him.

Then there was his military/reservist girlfriend. While in Iraq, they made videos of themselves having sex, a violation of military rules. They took photographs of one another holding a leash tied around the neck of naked and crawling detainees, most of whom have never been charged with any crimes. They were frequently admonished for loud and bawdy behavior.

But before another soldier blew the whistle, there were no reprimands. Nothing was done to them.

All this, in the military that won’t allow gay men and women to enlist or serve. Since the 1993 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ruling - surely one of the most blockheaded decisions ever to come out of government - over 11,000 gay men and women have left the service, including at least 25 highly trained linguists from the military’s Defense Language Institute.

This in a military that can’t meet recruiting goals, that except for Turkey’s is the only one in the world to exclude gays.

Very disturbing, the presumptions we make about some people (and, conversely, the breaks we give others, like ex-Marines). Very scary, the judgments we issue toward people who don’t look the same as we do. Very pervasive, the prejudices we carry.

From a friend who works at a local hospital I heard about two nurses and a doctor who could not figure out what to do with a man - a poor man who smelled a bit, who wasn’t particularly articulate or forthcoming. He had been treated. He had his prescriptions. And yet he sat there in the outpatient office.

“They called me in and asked, ‘What should we do with him?’” she said.

In 20 seconds, my friend learned the man had a Medicaid card - which would pay for his prescriptions - and a phone number for a sister - who was waiting to pick him up.

The difference? “I talked to him,” she said. “They didn’t.”

Racism, elitism, assumptions are very dangerous things. Check out the

new movie Crash if you have any doubt. It’s a fascinating, tense, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat movie that takes place in Los Angeles. We see the characters - Latinos, Koreans, blacks, whites, cops, Iranians - and because we’re smart we think we know who they are. We think we know what they’re about, what they’re thinking, what they’ll do. But we don’t.

There’s the locksmith who is mistaken by the movie’s rich, white bitch (Sandra Bullock) for a gang member; an Iranian businessman thought to be an Arab, not a Persian; a black cop who can’t get it straight which Latin American country his girlfriend is from; a black TV director who is told by a coworker that one of his characters “doesn’t talk black enough,” and a racist white cop who takes care of his aging, ailing father.

When I was telling someone about the film, she told me something that happened to her when she was out walking her dog late one night.

“It was dark,” she said. “These two guys in big, white T-shirts and lots of gold jewelry were coming toward me and I got a little scared. Then, as we passed, one said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’”

Paper Clips is another movie about intolerance and ignorance. The Jewish Educational Alliance showed the film to students at St. Vincent’s. It’s about a middle school in Whitwell, Tenn., that was studying the Holocaust and the systematic destruction of 6 million Jews.

Whitwell is a town of 1,500 with no Jews, no Catholics, five African-Americans, one Hispanic - and the intelligence to know they could not picture 6 million of anything. So they decided to collect 6 million paper clips, which the Norwegians wore during World War II as a gesture of solidarity. They collected 29 million - and decided to save 12 million, to symbolize the slain Gypsies and homosexuals. In the process, they received thousands of letters and artifacts and met a handful of aging, articulate Holocaust survivors.

To see the good people of Whitwell respond with such heart to the testimonies of the survivors was moving and hopeful. Which makes the notion of who we are, what we look like and how possible it is to get beyond our prejudices very relevant. Would that we could start this process in the Armed Forces.