Politics & Policy

Ugly Americans & Even Uglier Terrorists

What Abu Ghraib should teach us.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the hackneyed expression goes, the pictures of Americans degrading Iraqi prisoners speak volumes. The message is perfectly consistent with what Americans can see almost any day of the week on MTV, HBO, or until recently, Howard Stern. On television and the Internet, in countless venues, the human body is used and abused to titillate and satisfy the basest, coarsest impulses.

It is easy, of course, to dismiss all of the above as mere perversions or entertainment. Most of the men and women in the military are not the handful facing court martial for taking repulsive photos of Iraqi men in sexually humiliating positions. Moreover, we must not forget that we remain at war, with hundreds of thousands of men and women serving honorably and at great risk to themselves.

A first lieutenant Marine in Iraq recently wrote into the blogosphere to plead that we not fall victim to the American habit of self-prosecution or, as he put it, “doomsday predictions and spiteful opinions on our efforts over here.” He urges us to “spread the word that no one is poised to make such an amazing contribution to the everyday lives of Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world than the American Armed Forces.”

I believe him, but could it be that the Arab world is also poised to make a lasting contribution to the everyday lives of Americans? Not, of course, by launching terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in New York or Fallujah, but by holding up a cultural mirror to our own lives and prompting us to ask whether we have remained true to our own ideals.

Consider the following religious and cultural precepts: At the core of existence is God; our life is to seek Him and to be His witness. We seek a community organized around the pursuit of justice and the doing of good. Faith is more than just believing that God exists; it is understanding that God is in control of the universe and that each of us are wholly dependent upon His will. In matters of dress, the immodest is to be avoided, for sexual intercourse is intended for marriage as the ultimate expression of love and commitment. Homosexual and lesbian relations are unnatural and a deviation from the moral norm. The most important role of a mother and father is to give their children a good education and moral foundation. Men and women are equal in terms of accountability to God, with each possessing unique personalities of their own. Women, as men, may pursue a career, though mothers should be especially honored for their role within a family. Abortion is a crime.

Islamic scholars affirm each of these positions based on the Qur’an and other prophetic teaching. As a nation of many religions, Americans differ on certain aspects of these precepts, but there is a remarkable overlap between Judeo-Christian and Islamic belief. Abu Ghraib’s photographic humiliation reflects neither. Regrettably, it is more symptomatic of a modern society overly willing to forego good judgment and engage in a permissive lifestyle that complacently accepts the obscene and the crude. We may be able to pass this off as just a few pictures from a handful of miscreants or marginal Hollywood elements, but in the Muslim conception of community, or ummah, the media is expected to represent the virtues and ideals of the culture of which it is a part.

The American entertainment media, exported worldwide, is less an embodiment of ideals than a defamation. Until the prison-abuse photos of Abu Ghraib, it was more a defamation of self than others. Defamation, or qadhf, is a serious crime in the Muslim world, because it undermines the divine nature of humanity and is the taking of another’s good reputation. While the First Amendment fully protects the publication of every single ugly photo that the Department of Defense may yet make available, it would surely be prudent for mainstream news organizations not to aggravate the offense by displaying the other photos Secretary Rumsfeld has described as even worse.

Religious common ground on cultural precept aside, there’s a clear clash with regard to punishment. A militant Islamic system rectifies by retribution, as the unspeakable beheading of American job seeker Nick Berg attests. By contrast, we make amends through restitution and seeking forgiveness. This difference in approach is stark. it is the difference between civil order and uncivilized chaos. Even with the President Bush’s ample apology, the al Qaeda terrorist network–which took responsibility for Berg’s brutal slaughter–has at long last made its presence in Iraq manifest, a fact with which John Kerry and the other Iraq-intervention naysayers will now have to reconcile.

In the near term, al Qaeda’s agitation will surely continue to make it difficult for the Islamic world to accept the gift of freedom. The photos of degradation and the video of revenge are enough to remind us, however, that we will only betray and defeat our own long term interests if we unthinkingly lead the Arab world to a freedom unhinged from objective moral standards and personal responsibility.

Douglas W. Kmiec is chair and professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University. He a is former constitutional legal counsel to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

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