One does not have to be a minimizer to note that the United States is roiling in hysteria following reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
I’m feeling a bit hysterical myself. Each new report is worse than the one before.
Each photo makes us want to avert our gaze. Or take a shower. A nation of Lady Macbeths, we look for ways to cleanse ourselves of contamination by association.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dropped these chilling words during testimony last week before the U.S. Senate:
“There are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhumane,” he said. “It’s going to get a good deal more terrible, I’m afraid.”
We, too, are afraid. Some of those images reportedly capture American soldiers beating an Iraqi prisoner almost to death, having sex with a female Iraqi prisoner and “acting inappropriately with a dead body.” A videotape reportedly shows Iraqi guards raping boys.
One photo already published in The New Yorker along with Seymour Hersh’s second installment on the prison abuses shows American guards with German shepherds threatening a naked Iraqi man cowering in terror. Hersh writes that other photographs in the series show the same man on the ground bleeding from leg wounds.
Now the debate in Washington centers on whether, when, how and how many of such photographs to release. The Defense Department plans to show more pictures to Congress, but isn’t certain whether to release them to the public.
We all cringe at the thought because we know what it means. The potential repercussions are almost unbearable to consider: continued loss of respect in the world; increased risk to our soldiers, especially those who might be taken prisoner; empowerment of insurgents; derailment of our mission in Iraq, and, ultimately, further destabilization in the Middle East.
And, of course, growing hysteria at home.
It comes as little surprise that Bush-bashers have found a degree of vindication in the Abu Ghraib meltdown. By their interpretation, what happened in Saddam’s former torture chambers was inevitable, the logical extension of President Bush’s “evil” and Donald Rumsfeld’s “hubris.”
From the hysterical left come comparisons of Bush to Saddam that are too ridiculous to dignify with rebuttal. From the hysterical right come justifications for what can’t be justified. My mailbag has included more than a few from people who wrote in so many words: “Grow up, this is war.” Or, “We should have shot them all,” meaning the Iraqi prisoners.
What the world needs now are cooler heads, sober thought and courage. Ours.
No one ever said freedom was easy and the perverse folly known as Abu Ghraib is the acid test of our conviction. If there is any light in this tunnel, it is that which we now shine on our own failings.
What we know in this country — and what is both a duty and a privilege to demonstrate to others — is that freedom requires constant vigilance, self-scrutiny and correction. Critical to the process are openness, allegiance to due process and commitment to justice.
Which is to say, no matter how horrific, shameful or embarrassing the photographs from Abu Ghraib, we have to show them. Not to satisfy some prurient curiosity — wouldn’t we all rather not see? — but to demonstrate that we treat in the open even our ugliest sores.
To do otherwise, to try to conceal the misdeeds of some of our own would be to ratify the cynicism of our enemies while denying our allies confidence in our honesty. This is, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said, an opportunity “to prove to those who may still be open-minded that there is a difference between us and the Saddam Hussein regime.”
Thus, the Defense Department’s debate about whether to release the photographs to the public, even in the laudable interest of assuring fair trials for those charged, is pointless. The pictures will come out anyway — leaked and circulated on the Internet even if no mainstream media outlet would publish them. It is far better to release them once than to drag out the agony over weeks and months.
So chins up, courage on, hysteria off. Let’s get it over with and move on: punish those who deserve it, lick our wounds and be grateful that no one will have his tongue cut out for speaking up.
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