I have hesitated to add my two cents on the matter of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse simply because there is little to say on it that doesn’t strike me as obvious. However, on a matter of such extraordinary impact, I would be remiss to not at least record a few observations.
It disheartens me to hear many Americans be dismissive of the torture of prisoners. The argument we have heard can be abbreviated to something like, “well, we aren’t as bad as Saddam”-which sounds to me not significantly different from the old fashioned, “the ends justify the means”.
I am in the midst of reading the excellent David McCullough biography of John Adams, and the famous words of Adams to the effect that United States is a nation of laws, not of men, was more haunting to me now than when I had read them some years ago. Haunting because of the extraordinary willingness lately of Americans to ignore the rule of law.
This goes much deeper than the stupidity of this administration’s repudiation of the Geneva Convention: in the last two decades we have collectively looked the other way on numerous occasions to avoid stumbling over the rule of law. The most notable, and I think foreshadowing, of the various incidents of America Shrugging are the Iran-Contra affair and Presidential perjury impeachment trial. I was literally laughed at back then when I said we are setting precedent for all kinds of bad government behavior when we ignore such serious extralegal government activity.
I wonder who is laughing now.
The respect for individual sovereignty and the rule of law have been the bulwark of ideas that has helped make the United States the most successful nation in the history of the world. If we lose that, we have lost everything.
The fact of the prisoner abuse in Iraq is horrible. It is inexcusable that the responsible parties where not called to account immediately and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Sadly, even those in agreement with me on this point generally are making the argument based on notions of realpolitik, not on what is right. Of course based on pragmatic concerns alone we should be enormously upset, but where is the outrage? I for one wish for louder expressions that this kind of behavior is not what we are about as a people.
But then, as I have said recently, I’m not sure what we are about as a people anymore.
With all of the concern I have over the acts of abuse, and the lack of a credible response from the current administration, it isn’t even my most serious concern that arises from this crisis. The words of Donald Rumsfeld in his testimony before Congress should send shivers up the spine of every living American, and most dead ones as well:
We’re functioning with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.
In Rumsfeld’s world, the most upsetting thing is that you and I found out about it; that the veil of secrecy was not an iron curtain, but rendered a sieve by modern technology. This guy is one of the ones in charge people, not some blogger delivering glib commentary. While his remarks did stir up a dust devil of anger, I should think there would be a real fury of calls for his resignation.
Instead, Rumsfeld’s boss gives him a pat on the butt and like so many serious issues of our day, people get bored and soon the passions subside. And of course the press will soon follow suit too because the pictures of naked prisoners sell more copy than do the details of a government run amok. After all, its just one more lie. Just one more little secret extralegal government activity. A little torture for a good cause.
Anyone still laughing?