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.”