EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) May 31, 2004, issue of National Review.
The pictures from Abu Ghraib look like stills from a demented reality show: young men and women, an exotic locale, sex or the simulation thereof. The American prison guards took the pictures for their own benefit, a private Jerry Springer, but after 60 Minutes II broadcast them, they went global.
Thanks to the involvement of Americans, Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with the abuse and torture of prisoners–one year after the 25 years during which Saddam Hussein used it, and other prisons, to mutilate, not humiliate, and to kill, not torture, thousands upon thousands of Iraqis. Abu Ghraib’s late-blooming notoriety is a tribute both to our narcissism and to our sensibilities, in the best sense: America is only interested in the crimes of Americans, and America does consider the brutalizing of prisoners to be a crime.
The Army’s reaction to the offenses committed within its ranks was swift and commendable. On January 13, a specialist with the 800th Military Police Brigade reported the abuse. By the 16th, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had ordered and announced a criminal investigation. On the 19th, he ordered a separate administrative investigation, which would be carried out by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. Taguba’s report, which found widespread abuse, and which recommended that guards play no role in interrogating their prisoners, was delivered by the middle of March. The accused soldiers, suspended from duty in February, await trial. The Army’s reaction gives the lie to the notion, beloved of its critics, that America’s decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions to al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners sent a signal of lawlessness. Laws were broken in Iraq, but the law pursued the miscreants.
But the Army, running up the chain of command through the Pentagon to the commander-in-chief, was slow to recognize the impact that the story, and especially its images, would have. In a revealing comment during his otherwise successful testimony before Congress, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said he hadn’t “been focused on the war of ideas, to be honest with you.” Time we focused. The Terror War, in all its multifarious pieces, is fought on many places besides the battlefield.
We should also ask how Abu Ghraib fits into larger patterns of American culture. The presence of women in the gruesome revels was disturbing, and predictable. Effective discipline cannot be maintained in an officially unisex army. The humiliations in Abu Ghraib mimic humiliations reputedly practiced in American prisons, on American inmates. We want to send criminals to jail, not to compulsory-sex clubs.
The Abu Ghraib story fed one aspect of American life that is ancient, and well understood: congressional grandstanding. Among the most egregious solons was Sen. John McCain, who mused to one friendly reporter (no other kind ever questions him) that the North Vietnamese never subjected him “to sexual humiliation and degradation.” No: McCain started humiliating himself when he began imagining that he was the moral compass of American politics.
When the world piles on, the thought crosses the mind that it is irksome to be held to a higher standard. This is a foolish thought: The higher standard is the definition of American life. We went to war to defend it from jihadists and their patrons. We will, and should, police ourselves even as we defeat them.
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