a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Shared responsibility

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 8th, 2004

I recommend Anne Applebaum’s Thursday column in the Washington Post, “Willing Torturers” (the title is a reference to Daniel Goldhagen’s famous book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”):

The American soldiers and civilians responsible for humiliating, torturing and possibly murdering Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad over the past few months do not belong in the same category as Nazi or Soviet camp guards. But their actions do prove, if further proof were needed, that no culture is incapable of treating its enemies as subhuman. […]

Americans are still as capable of torture as anyone else. Rumsfeld said yesterday that it was “un-American” to abuse prisoners — as if Americans were still somehow exempt from the passions that grip the rest of the human race. But we aren’t, and because we aren’t, we shouldn’t dispense with rules that have been designed to contain them.

Many of us (including myself) put up with American-argued exceptions to Geneva Conventions in Guantanamo that carried over in spirit — not surprisingly — to the war in Iraq. When dealing with terrorists, I thought those exceptions were defensible — being part of a sovereign nation’s armed forces is how to get the benefit of an agreement between sovereign nations, while not being part of one is a valid reason to not get those benefits.

But while that might or might not be a good point, it’s certainly not good enough. How do you know that guy who’s just surrendered to you really is a terrorist? How do you know another guy is just someone some other unit picked out at random* after the one they really wanted got away?

Even if you were good at apprehending only people who deserved it, you’ve still got two different wars going on: the one on terrorists in Afghanistan, and the one to topple a rogue dictator and pacify Iraq. Distinctions need to made, but “even” the United States armed forces don’t always do distinctions or nuance very well. Especially if their secretary and president hardly ever do distinctions or nuance very well. Abridging process in Guantanamo may have led* to the gross indecencies at Abu Ghraib.

So I share some of the blame, too; I foolishly trusted this administration to make sure that acceptable standards of decency were upheld in Iraq, even after knowing it was pushing the envelope in Guantanamo – and braying that it didn’t need to be accountable to anyone else about that. Now I think the country can’t afford to let that continue any longer.

The price for Abu Ghraib shouldn’t just include Rumsfeld’s (long-overdue) resignation or reforms in the armed forces’ Iraqi prison system. It should include Guantanamo being opened up to inspection and adjudication as well, and should include us treating Guantanamo prisoners under the Geneva Conventions in all respects until there’s a consensus on how to legitimately handle terrorists differently.

A congressional resolution would suffice — assuming it can be formulated and passed in the snakepit that passes for our national forum. Until then, an executive order would do — assuming the executive doesn’t think he’s already done after a TV interview or a cheap apology to the nearest Arab dignitary.

The news will apparently get much worse about our own crimes and criminal negligence in Iraq: boys. An old woman. War criminals as hired guns.* I had no idea the war would mean these abuses, on this scale. I don’t think it had to be this way. But since it clearly is this way, I was clearly too sanguine about “come what may” when I argued for the war. I thought it might mean many dead in a necessary war. But the war was not as necessary as I thought. And the way it’s been carried out has led to more than ‘just’ dead, it has led to these disgraces of our country.


* Links to or via Talking Points Memo.

UPDATE, 5/8, 6:30pm: Re-reading, I don’t like my own introduction, because I’m not sure why Ms. Applebaum thinks the American soldiers guilty of crimes at Abu Ghraib don’t belong in the same category with Nazi or Soviet prison guards. They may not have been at it quite as long, I suppose, but they were in the same league. I think it’s a vestige of “American exceptionalism” that doesn’t belong, and is a weak point in an otherwise good column.

One Response to “Shared responsibility”

  1. » Blog Archive » Independent torture commission vote expected soon Says:

    […] related posts on this blog Shared responsibility (5/8/04: mine too) How to make more Iraqis want to kill Americans (7/8/04: children abused at A.G.) […]

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