It is hard for Americans to see the repulsive images of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi detainees and not think, “I thought we were the ones that didn’t do that.” But we recognize that the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were our atrocities. At the same time, we take note of how our democracy has swiftly kicked into self-correction mode. The entire American leadership denounced the prisoner mistreatment as criminal without hesitation or equivocation. President Bush himself gave interviews to Arab television audiences to personally relay our contrition.
Speaking to the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, the man at the center of the firestorm, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said, “These events occurred on my watch as secretary of defense. I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility … I feel terrible about what happened to these detainees. They are human beings; they were in U.S. custody; our country had an obligation to treat them right … To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology.”
A criminal investigation into the prisoner abuses was ordered by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commanding officer in Iraq, on Jan. 16 – only three days after a specialist in the 800th Military Police Brigade first blew the whistle. The details of the abuses are known because the U.S. army itself detailed them. Some, like The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, are suggesting that these misdeeds originated in some very high places. But no matter how big this scandal turns out to be, we will resolve it and move on.
The sadism of the soldiers provokes collective revulsion not just because it damages our interests and reputation, but because it violates our self-designated standards of human dignity. By the standards of the region, on the other hand, such rights abuses are the norm. It is surely a matter of historical irony that the name Abu Ghraib should become known to us only now, after two and a half decades as one of the world’s ghastliest prisons, an abattoir that not only disrobed and terrorized but left thousands dead and mutilated. Shouldn’t we ask where the outrage was then?
Iraqis have certainly been wondering. “Here we have the president of the greatest nation on earth apologizing for what a small group of pervert soldiers did,” said an Iraqi on the BBC site. “And here, the American press proves that it’s free to show the truth. We lived with similar pictures for years until they became the basis of every prison’s daily life and we never heard an Arabic paper point them out.”
Last week, a different crowd of degenerates also committed an atrocity and likewise memorialized it with digital technology: They sawed off the head of a young American named Nicholas Berg after reading a screed bursting with threats against Americans. Whereas we are shamed by our wrongdoing, radical Islamic websites have been thrilled by the butchery. One gushed, “Please send us a head every day.”
Forget all the talk about how this is only a single, isolated murder. The murderous impulse that beheaded Berg is the same impulse that beheaded Daniel Pearl in 2002 and the same that murdered 3,000 Americans on a day that already seems distant. And Americans are hardly the only ones dealing with Islamic holy war.
In the last 20 days, the al-Qaeda movement has killed Chechnya’s president in order to prolong war in the beleaguered province, inflamed the Nigerian Christian-Muslim tribal clashes that have killed more than 700 since last week, reinvigorated a separatist conflict in Thailand, leaving over 100 dead, and carried out a series of gun and bombing attacks in Uzbekistan that has killed 19. On Friday, a Pakistani associate of Osama bin Laden said that in return for their “selfish” behavior and “terrorism” against Muslims around the world, Canadians too can now expect suicide bombings.
You would have to be blind not to take notice of the danger jihad poses. And you would have to be unconcerned with history to forget that the U.S. has always prevailed against violent mass movements.
Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.