Almost anything that can be said about the recently revealed abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British troops is going to be a cliché. It's horrifying and sickening; it's a disgrace to the uniform; it damages our cause in the war against terror by displacing us from the moral high ground; and it drops a highly effective recruitment tool in the lap of those waging jihad against the West.
The fact that Saddam Hussein's brutal Abu Ghraib prison was recycled for American brutality toward Iraqis seems to make a mockery of what is, to date, the only effective justification for the war: the liberation of the Iraqi people from an inhumane dictatorship.
It is almost as much of a cliché—and equally true—to say that this story reveals, in a perverse way, the strength of American democracy. Under Hussein, torture (far more extreme than anything done by the American soldiers) was the normal way of doing things. Under American rule, it is a scandal that calls for punishment for the culprits, a contrite speech by the president of the United States, and many voices urging the resignation of the secretary of defense. Under the American occupation, Iraqis can gather outside the prison to protest the abuse. Under Hussein, even whispering about it to friends and family was dangerous.
All of that is true. And it is equally true that the outrage among Arabs and Muslims seems hypocritical when most of them live under regimes that are guilty of far worse abuses. But to say that we're better than brutal dictatorships is not saying much. This isn't a standard by which we should measure ourselves.
One truly shameful aspect of the scandal is that some pro-war pundits have tried to minimize or excuse the abuse. Most notably, there was this diatribe from conservative talk radio king Rush Limbaugh: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day… You ever heard of emotional release?"
Lovely. Need one even point out that, whatever you think of fraternity initiation hazing, the victims at least volunteer for it? Or that the worst thing about those photos of US soldiers abusing and humiliating the prisoners is precisely that they were "having a good time"?
Luckily, Limbaugh's repulsive comments place him in a minority among conservatives. On the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan laments that it's "demoralizing" to see that "some Americans are capable of this." Demoralizing but, alas, not surprising. Some Americans are capable of appalling violence toward fellow Americans—be it street crime, domestic abuse, or police brutality. Why, then, should it be a shock that some would be capable of appalling deeds toward foreigners? What's shocking and inexcusable is that it was allowed to happen and to go on for a long time.
Cruelty is a human trait that cuts across national lines. As the scandal has shown, it cuts across gender lines as well: At least two female soldiers have been implicated in the mistreatment and sexual humiliation of prisoners, one of them appearing in some of the infamous photos. The prison commander was also a woman, Brigadier General Janice Karpinski.
Ludicrously, a few conservatives—the smirking provocateur Ann Coulter and the usually sensible Linda Chavez—have used this as an argument against women in the military. A more common response, from left and right, has been hand-wringing over the fact that women could do such things—either because women themselves have been victims of sexual violence or because women should be inherently better than that. But there is little basis for such expectations. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had their share of female torturers.
When given power over others, some human beings (including women) will abuse that power in sickening ways. This is a fact of life. The responsibility of the US military was to prevent such abuses or at least nip them in the bud. This responsibility has not been met—a failure that we are only now, perhaps too late for the war effort, beginning to correct.
Correction: In last week's column, I stated incorrectly that Rene Gonzalez's attack on Pat Tillman appeared on the front page of The Daily Collegian at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The column actually appeared on the editorial page of the college newspaper's print edition and on the home page of its website.