Forgive me, but the head reels. A prison scandal in Iraq -- already investigated, already in repair, but only recently and sensationally publicized -- is now our nation's destiny, not to mention our national character. City on the Hill? Abu Ghraib. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Abu Ghraib. Yorktown, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Verdun, Midway, Hamburger Hill, Baghdad? Abu Ghraib. Mark Twain, Mickey Mouse, the Salk vaccine and bubble gum? Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib.
Why? Because Abu Ghraib is, more than anything else, the fulfillment of the media dream, the Vietnam they think they never had (or had a very long time ago), the aberration to obsess about, the disgrace to exult in and the opportunity -- and this is key -- to shift the political landscape. That is why 30-some instances of abuse at Abu Ghraib, which range from acts resembling extreme fraternity hazing to actual sexual assault, have sucked all the oxygen from the conflict's urgent questions of life and death, truth and falsehood, and civilization and barbarism.
But isn't Abu Ghraib just such an urgent question? No. The humiliations and assaults perpetrated by a "handful" -- and how the media hate that non-collective word -- of American servicemen and women are already against both our laws and our sense of decency. There is nothing here to settle (but please -- no more women in combat theaters). Criminals will be punished. That is why this is not a Big Story, at the top of the president's list, the focal point of the world.
Or, rather, it shouldn't be. But here is where the insatiable media desire for fulfillment comes in. With Abu Ghraib, the old antagonisms between the media and the military return, with the counter-culturally-minded media exulting over a high and mighty military slip. More than the hard-luck hunt for WMDs, more than the stalemate in Fallujah, more than the death of Pat Tillman, Abu Ghraib is a setback that reflects badly not only on the war effort, but on American serviceman, and in that there is political opportunity.
CNN, for example, couldn't and didn't wait to use Abu Ghraib as a "segue" into a nostalgic, sicko reminiscence of My Lai, the 1968 civilian massacre in Vietnam that still defines the American military for a lingering generation of media, Democratic and Hollywood elites.
According to watchdog group Media Research Center's account of the CNN report, images of the My Lai mayhem were followed by images of the naked backsides of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "We all carry with us the potential to be the killer and the victim," said CNN's Bruce Morton, reading the words of a Vietnam-era medic, adding: "Maybe that's the lesson now, too."