Politics & Policy

Is Everybody Brutal?

The Abu Ghraib aftermath.

The television moments of the interrogation of the generals by the senators reminded one of the estoppel power of bureaucratic language. Doing a television program in Seoul some years ago I attempted to get from the commanding general the answer to a question I had thought pretty simple. After digging in for a dozen minutes I finally retreated, dazed by what had evolved into an innate incomprehensibility not only of the answer, but of the question.

And the interrogating senators had less time than I had in Seoul, limited as they were to ten minutes. Senator Byrd, who is as tenacious as an Internal Revenue examiner, attempted to find out just who had the authority to decree privations for recalcitrant prisoners. From the blur that ensued, one got the impression that the stimulants to cooperation were invoked ad hoc. Well, did that mean that the individual U.S. soldier applied this or that inducement based on generic okays? Without specific okays?

One gets the impression that the command structure was simply ineffective. This is a relief, in that we like to think that nobody actually authorized what we know took place, because we have pictures of it taking place. But there is the concomitant dismay — that a number of American soldiers were engaged in barbarous activity over a period of weeks and even months, doing their best to persuade the world that it is unsafe to assume that Americans have an ingrown resistance to brutality.

A story published in the Baltimore Sun reveals that a few of the soldiers involved in Abu Ghraib attempted protests of sorts, but these went unheeded. Through all the past weeks’ commotions there is the U.S. effort to speak to the Arab people. The idea is to communicate the mortification official America feels over what has happened, and to suggest that our critics spend some time evaluating our reaction to revealed torture, as compared with the resignation with which the Arab community greeted what went on routinely under the authority of the regime which we went to war to unseat.

Al Hurra, which is a satellite channel financed by the United States, has broadcast records so graphic they would not be shown, under existing protocols, in America. Consider watching human hands being chopped off. That is one of the scenes displayed on Al Hurra. “We have even worse tapes but won’t show them on television because they are so graphic.”

Does sponsoring Al Hurra come off as a kind of national repentance?

A British doctor and analyst, Theodore Dalrymple, writes in National Review that such things as we have been reading about, and seeing, happen when “unbridled power over others” is exercised. Fugitive human inclinations build up and seek expression. One of these is sheer contempt for the prisoner class. Winston Churchill once said that a civilization could be judged by the way it treated its prisoners. Not so, says Dr. Dalrymple. “One can admire the civilization of Renaissance Florence without having many illusions as to how it treated its prisoners.”

It may bring relief of some kind to acquire such historical perspective as permits us to say, at our Civilization 101 seminars, that dastardly things simply happen, and that it must be expected that they will continue to happen. Greater relief, on the other hand, is to be found in insisting that the American people are profoundly moved by what we have seen, that they refuse to be indifferent to such excesses, and that they are determined to express their resentment by prompt action.

Well, we tried Specialist Sivits. And we learned that he made his confession at the special court martial “fighting back tears.” That was pretty rapid judicial action — all of it done in a single day. Members of the Arab press were there, and saw what there was to see — and heard the sentence pronounced. One year in jail, and canned from the military.

By U.S. standards, that is indeed straightforward action. But it isn’t easy to say whether the Arab man in the street will be impressed by the speedy judicial accounting, or amused by the apparent triviality of the sentence. It is here that we will need to be especially persuasive. We have to tell the Arab world that we don’t believe the punishment is commensurate with the crime. How can a crime that stopped America dead when pictured on 60 Minutes warrant only a year in the jug?

We weren’t about to shoot Specialist Sivits, but in doing to him what we are entitled to do under the limitations of our code, we reinforce that code which he scorned. It’s going to take a long time before Civilization 101 seminars in Baghdad succeed in explaining that when the U.S. gets really mad, we’ll lock somebody up for a year.


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