Demolition won't do

May 26, 2004

TEARING DOWN the Abu Ghraib prison won't dispel the haunting images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.

It won't renew the reputation of the United States among the Iraqi people or rehabilitate its image around the world. And more to the point, it won't heal the psychic wounds of the Iraqis battered there. President Bush's offer, made in his speech Monday night, to demolish the infamous prison and replace it with a state-of-the art prison system shows a lack of understanding of how best to deal with the political fallout of the prisoner abuse scandal.

The American military's shame over the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib can't be purged with a bulldozer. That brick-and-mortar solution voiced in a highly political address by Mr. Bush sounded like a presidential speechwriter's fix for the Abu Ghraib problem. Mr. Bush couldn't ignore the abuse scandal, so it became a couple of paragraphs on his TelePrompTer, the proposed razing of Abu Ghraib a symbolic aside.

A more nuanced and honest response to the Abu Ghraib injustices would have been to emphasize the criminal investigations under way and reiterate the U.S. commitment to punish those involved. Demolishing Abu Ghraib only conforms to the stereotype of an imperial power flexing its muscle.

Mr. Bush did say that he would defer to the wishes of the Iraqi people on the future of Abu Ghraib, and that is as it should be. If the new transitional government in Iraq wants to demolish the prison, it should.

The United States could then use its aid to cultivate the more genial aspects of a civil society -- schools, roads, hospitals, housing, courts, projects such as those it has launched over the past year. When the Bush administration sought $20.3 billion to rebuild Iraq, it asked for $99 million to build or update 26 jails and prisons. Haven't we spent enough on warehousing prisoners?

The Bush administration should be focused on training and equipping an Iraqi police force so that law and order can be restored and maintained without relying on U.S. forces. That may take a year or longer -- but it should be a top priority.

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal will remain a part of the U.S. legacy in Iraq; destroying the structure that embodies this shameful episode of the American military occupation won't erase what occurred there.

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