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We can’t claim moral high ground

It is the pictures not seen that tell the full sadistic story. The pictures of hooded, stripped-down and wired Abu Ghraib prisoners in “posed” sex acts not aired on America’s networks or published in family newspapers because they are so obscene, so revolting and so inflammatory that we know what would happen.

How did the U.S. military let this happen?

I don’t mean the abuses — the higher-ups have all sorts of excuses for not being aware of what underlings were doing at the overcrowded prison near Baghdad. If I hear one more apologist say this is nothing more than a few bad apples — well, it’s not. It’s a few bad apples covered up and left to rot by the Pentagon. It’s a public-relations disaster for the Bush administration in this “war of ideas” to win the hearts of Muslims suspicious of the U.S. military occupation in Iraq.

We now know that the Army is conducting criminal investigations into the deaths of at least 14 prisoners while in U.S. custody and an additional 10 to 14 cases of abuse in detention, depending on the agency involved in the investigation.

Those numbers don’t just reflect what we have learned from the pictures taken at Abu Ghraib. They include abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. What of the 600 detainees being held at Guantanamo, Cuba?

President Bush has ordered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to investigate, move quickly and punish those responsible. Bush went on two Arab television stations Wednesday to try to fix this public-relations mess, promising justice and to get to the truth, but whom are we kidding?

This is just the latest, if the most explosive, of “errors” committed by the U.S. government, and the thing is, our leaders delayed, denied and essentially ignored a huge problem they should have corrected immediately.

Bush is not being served well by Rumsfeld’s macho mania. After a year of denials from Rumsfeld and his crew about allegations that were surfacing in the Arab world about U.S. military abuses, Americans learned this week that the military has known about abuses at another prison as far back as May last year.

We’ve also learned that the deaths of at least two Iraqi prisoners already were ruled homicides. One soldier was court-martialed and discharged from the Army. The prisoner was shot dead after throwing rocks at the soldier. How’s that for overkill?

The other case, which the military has sent to the Justice Department, involves one of those infamous “contractors” hired by the CIA to interrogate detainees. Talk about the scourge of outsourcing.

Why didn’t Rumsfeld make a big deal out of those being held responsible? The military turned over the contractor case to Justice in November, for heaven’s sake. Rumsfeld also admitted this week that he had yet to see a classified Pentagon report from March detailing the abuse allegations. His excuse? The report was making its way up the chain of command.

A dozen or even dozens of abuse investigations obviously don’t reflect the valiant and ethical actions of the vast majority of U.S. military putting their lives on the line in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are idealistic young people doing their best under the worst of circumstances.

But the Pentagon’s initial denials and months of delays speak loads about the administration’s penchant for secrecy, even when going public would have been the smart thing to do. Certainly smart from a public-relations standpoint to show Arabs throughout the Middle East that America takes seriously human rights for all people, however despicable some of them might be.

And, yes, there are nasty, bad people in those prisons — some of them Saddam’s henchmen who killed, maimed and tortured other Iraqis. Still, Americans can’t claim to hold the higher moral ground in democracy’s name and then allow our military to slither in the muck of atrocities.

Bush will never fire Macho-Mania Man, but the president surely needs to open up the prisons to surprise inspections by Iraqi civilians and international monitors — and not just the Red Cross but the Red Crescent (a Muslim group like the Red Cross) — so that there won’t be any question about a U.S. cover-up.

Otherwise Rumsfeld will keep giving bureaucratic excuses for his political and ethical tone-deafness on human rights, putting ever more American GIs in harm’s way in Iraq.

 

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