Picturing defeat in war of ideas

Abuse: At Abu Ghraib, the uneasy coexistence of the administration's themes for the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq collided.

Analysis

May 10, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The accusations of gross misconduct directed at a handful of U.S. soldiers guarding prisoners in Iraq have thrown the administration into a graver political crisis than the deaths of more than 760 of their fellow troops in the war.

On the face of it, that seems extraordinary. But as the Bush administration and Congress came to understand last week, the stark photos from Abu Ghraib prison threaten the United States with defeat in the war of ideas that underlies the war on terrorism.

During a campaign stop in Iowa on Thursday, President Bush adjusted his stump speech for a slightly awkward moment, struggling to hold on to the moral high ground he has claimed unwaveringly since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The abhorrent pictures on our TV screens have stained our honor," Bush said. "They do not reflect the nature of the men and women we have sent overseas," he assured the audience. "We've sent decent, compassioned, honorable, sacrificing citizens."

He did not address the mystery that has disturbed many Americans over the past 10 days: how such decent citizens came to produce the sadistic pornography of the photos flashing on their television screens.

"Insofar as we have portrayed those we're fighting as evil, we've cast ourselves as good," says Lawrence M. Hinman, professor of philosophy and director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego. "That makes us extraordinarily vulnerable to the charge that these pictures show that - albeit on a much, much smaller scale - we are capable of the same kind of wrong as our enemy. So that line between us and them becomes much less clearly drawn."

Even the most horrifying attacks on Americans in Iraq - U.S. soldiers ripped apart by car bombs or security contractors burned and dismembered by a mob - did not challenge the administration's moral framework. Such attacks could be portrayed as confirming the iniquity and ruthlessness of the enemy.

But the prisoner abuse is different, Hinman says: "We said we were better than this. And that's why we're in Iraq."

From the first days after hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, the administration has sounded two themes for the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.

On the one hand, officials said, the United States was "taking off the gloves," dropping the legal niceties and going after the "evildoers," whether they were al-Qaida leaders or a Baathist dictator. The Clinton administration had made a fatal mistake by treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem; the Bush administration was declaring war.

On the other hand, the same officials said, the United States is a good and compassionate nation that sought only to bring freedom, democracy and prosperity to oppressed people. America would win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, a liberated Iraq included, with generous aid, fair treatment and, if necessary, advertising campaigns explaining the American way.

For more than two years, those two themes uneasily coexisted. At Abu Ghraib prison, they have collided.

A broader pattern

While the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib clearly is an extreme, it is part of a broader pattern of abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army said last week that 35 investigations into prisoner mistreatment or deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken place, and the CIA has referred two deaths of detainees in agency custody to the Justice Department. Independent groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained repeatedly of a pattern of abuse in both countries.

The abuse, in turn, took place against the background of two years of tough words from top administration officials.

Speaking of CIA operations against suspected terrorists, Cofer Black, the agency's former counterterrorism chief, declared bluntly in September 2002: "All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off."

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush made a striking reference to the killing of terrorist suspects: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way - they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

Nor was the harsh tone limited to words. In November 2002, the CIA fired a missile from an unmanned aircraft in Yemen to kill six suspected al-Qaida members, one of them a U.S. citizen.

In interrogating terror suspects, U.S. intelligence officers began to collaborate with their counterparts in regimes from Egypt to Pakistan that have few qualms about torture. Two U.S. citizens designated enemy combatants, Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, were locked up without lawyers or access to the courts. A prison for terrorism suspects was set up at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to place it beyond easy reach of U.S. courts.

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