What are the thousand words, I wonder, that are worth the pictures of grinning US soldiers sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison? An essay by Michael Ignatieff about human rights as the justification for war? An article by Samuel Huntington on the superiority of Western values? A rousing column by Tom Friedman calling on America to make Iraq a modern democratic state? Maybe Bernard Lewis could write up a talk about Islamic paranoia, or perhaps Alan Dershowitz could reprise in an op-ed his argument that torture can be morally permissible–a view that found a ready, even gleeful, hearing, I seem to remember, in journalistic circles after 9/11.
It’s one thing, though, for writers to euphemize about “rough treatment” and propose scenarios in which there is one man in custody who can prevent World War III–and another to look at those pictures. Who are those soldiers, looking so much like frat boys and mean girls on steroids, how did they come up with their pornographic tableaux, and what were they thinking when they took their snapshots? True, Saddam’s men tortured with impunity while our thugs will be brought to account (although maybe not those on contract–apparently even wartime atrocities are being outsourced now). Six supervisors have already been severely reprimanded and a seventh has received a “letter of admonishment.” When you consider that Lieut. William Calley spent just three days in prison for presiding over the mass slaughter of men, women and children at My Lai in March 1968, a blot on one’s résumé for overseeing prisoner abuse seems about on target. It was war. Things happen. And they take time to process: Maybe there were good reasons why the Army took no action for months after first learning of the abuse, why Gen. Richard Myers hadn’t read the report although it was completed in February, why he asked 60 Minutes II to postpone showing the photos, why Donald Rumsfeld took six days to comment and why George W. Bush’s early reaction was a peeved and childish “I didn’t like it one bit.” (Compare that with his comment in the State of the Union address on torture and rape under Saddam Hussein: “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”)
The fact is, whatever the reason or excuse, however unrepresentative those photos are ever shown to be–and whatever punishment is eventually meted out to the perpetrators–the United States has just lost its last remaining rationale for the misbegotten invasion of Iraq. The WMDs are missing, the nuclear weapons never existed (even the “nuclear weapons program” has been dead since 1991); you don’t hear much anymore about Saddam having been behind 9/11, although thanks to the media’s slavish channeling of White House propaganda, 70 percent of Americans will probably go their graves believing him Osama’s best friend. Now the rescue of the Iraqi people from tyranny and brutality is turning out to be another fantasy. The humanitarian argument persuaded a lot of people–good people–to give this war the benefit of the doubt. Does anyone still think Iraqis are about to shower their invaders with roses and sweetmeats?