As of this writing, seven in ten Americans want Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to remain at his post, a vote of confidence that exceeds that even for the President himself. The majority apparently agree with Bush that Rumsfeld is doing a “superb job,” that war is hell, and–Geneva Conventions notwithstanding–that hell includes war crimes like rape and torture. So the people have spoken, the poll people at least–a jolly thumbs-up to “whatever it takes.” Nevertheless, it’s awfully hard not to look at those hoods and think Inquisition; or the piles of naked and sodomized men and think Abner Louima; or the battered corpses and think Emmett Till. According to Time magazine, the photo of the prisoner with electrodes attached to his arms and genitals is illustrative of “a classic torture method known as crucifixion…. This kind of standing torture was used by the Gestapo and by Stalin…although the wires and the threat of electrocution if you fell were a Brazilian police innovation.”
This is not minor or mere “lack of discipline.” This mess is the predictable byproduct of any authority that starts “sweeping” up “bad guys” and holding them without charge, in solitary and in secret, and presuming them guilty. It flourished beyond the reach of any formal oversight by Congress, by lawyers or by the judiciary, a condition vaguely rationalized as “consistent with” if not “precisely” pursuant to the Geneva Conventions. Bloodied prisoners were moved around to avoid oversight by international observers, a rather too disciplined bit of sanitizing. Indeed, all this unpleasantness embarrasses even Rumsfeld, who is feeling “terrible” these days. Just terrible.
Perhaps those approval ratings will shift as yet more revelations come to light; as the denial wears off and the criminality sinks in. But what does it mean for the state of our Union that so many ordinary Americans currently seem to resemble a battered wife explaining to the police how her husband was just trying to discipline that wailing baby when he accidentally tossed it out the window…
The populist cacophony of radio and TV bristles with bipartisan confusion. Free-floating claims that Abu Ghraib’s victims “are not in there for traffic violations” obscure the lack of any charges at all against most of them. Democratic members of Congress cite the Army Times in calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Rush Limbaugh cites Alan Dershowitz in a call for license to torture. The empire of good, the axis of evil–everything is all mixed up. Those who once denounced the wretched relativism of the so-called culture wars now plead context! Context! Everything is context! Worst of all, the buzzwords du jour refer not to domestic law or international convention but come straight out of the bad boy’s handbook of classic excuses. Here’s my list of gathered rationalizations shaping the surprising public tolerance of behavior nearly everyone simultaneously agrees is just plain wrong.
1. They started it. Unfortunately, the “they” usually meant is Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, not Iraq. Memory strains, but in point of fact, we started this one.
2. A head for a head. The four American contract soldiers who were burned and strung from a bridge in March have been widely invoked as justification for endless revenge–albeit an anticipatory-retroactive, circular kind of vengeance, since the abuse at Abu Ghraib took place months before the incident at the bridge. And some have cited the beheading of American Nicholas Berg as reason to respond “in kind.”
3. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Hence dogs. Omnivorous, literal ones.
4. Original sin. G. Gordon Liddy, on his talk show, decried Pfc. Lynndie England’s pulling a naked Iraqi man on a leash as follows: “It’s pretty much a nightmare with women in the military…. It’s not the sort of life suitable for women…. God didn’t make them that way…”
5. I was just following orders. She was just following orders, insisted Pfc. England.
6. They liked it. As in Senator James Inhofe’s bet that the prisoners in the photos “wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons.” Earlier, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski had said conditions were so good that prisoners would never want to leave.
7. They’re a bunch of sissy crybabies. Many commentators described the nudity and sexual assault of prisoners as “particularly” offensive to Iraqi men, as though allegations of rape with broom handles are less offensive here in the United States. Perhaps we have so often rationalized such treatment at the hands of supposedly “rogue” local law officers that we think of this as nothing “particular.” Tom DeLay dismissively likened the hearings to “saying we need an investigation every time there’s police brutality on the street.” Moreover, the alleged “softening up” process resembled hazing techniques used to “toughen up” our own soldiers: Time cited former Marine Anthony Swofford as describing a “field fuck”–a staged mass rape of one Marine by the rest of the unit in order to “let off steam and entertain a visiting journalist.” Rush Limbaugh said Abu Ghraib is no worse than initiation rites for Skull and Bones and proclaimed himself quite tired of the “unceasing handwringing in this touchy-feely little country of ours.”
8. You’re blowing this out of proportion. Senator Inhofe says that he is “more outraged by the outrage” in the media than by anything that went on in the prisons. And in true shoot-the-messenger mode, the Pentagon has suggested that it is the publicizing of the abuse that will endanger American interests rather than the fact of its occurrence.
9. All the other kids are doing it. G. Gordon Liddy’s show discussed the notion that John Kerry should be charged because “he’s the one who’s admitted committing war crimes.” And the eloquent Mr. Limbaugh called Democrats “elite sophisticates” who want others to think that “these thoughts” never cross their minds. “It’s what they’d love to do to Bush. Torture.”
Martin Luther King Jr., calling the Vietnam War a “demonic destructive suction tube,” urged us to think not of ideology but of people. We might consider the quiet wisdom of that warning in the caldron of these times.