Listen to the language. It is always a leading indicator of moral confusion.
The lawyer for a soldier charged in the Iraq prison abuse investigation was explaining a photograph. It showed some Americans standing over a pile of naked Iraqis: "Intelligence officers came into the facility, pulled two men out of their cells, took them away, brought them back with a third prisoner, ordered the MPs to undress all of them, and then started interrogating them, and had them . . . in this position where they're all embracing each other."
The lawyer's client probably will offer -- this should deepen Americans' queasiness -- the Nuremberg defense: I was only obeying orders. If the abuse was the result of orders -- or of the absence of them -- fault must extend up the chain of command.
So, forgive the lawyer's language. But note what it betokens: a flinching from facts. Americans must not flinch from absorbing the photographs of what some Americans did in that prison. And they should not flinch from this fact: That pornography is, almost inevitably, part of what empire looks like. It does not always look like that, and does not only look like that. But empire is always about domination. Domination for self-defense, perhaps. Domination for the good of the dominated, arguably. But domination.
And some people will be corrupted by dominating. That is why the leaders of empires must be watchful. Very watchful. Donald Rumsfeld is clearly shattered by the corruption he tardily comprehended. Testifying to Congress last week, he seemed saturated with a sadness that bespeaks his deep decency and his horror at the vast injury done to the nation by elements of the department he administers. He knows that he failed the president. And he knows that his extraordinary record of government service -- few public careers, including presidential ones, can match Rumsfeld's -- has been tarnished.
How should he, and we, think about what comes next? Consider an axiom, a principle, two questions and then a second axiom.
The first axiom is: When there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate. Leave aside the question of who or what failed before Sept. 11, 2001. But who lost his or her job because the president's 2003 State of the Union address gave currency to a fraud -- the story of Iraq's attempting to buy uranium in Niger? Or because the primary and only sufficient reason for waging preemptive war -- weapons of mass destruction -- was largely spurious? Or because postwar planning, from failure to anticipate the initial looting to today's insufficient force levels, has been botched? Failures are multiplying because of choices for which no one seems accountable.
The principle is: The response by the nation's government must express horror, shame and contrition proportional to the evil done to others, and the harm done to the nation, by agents of the government.
Americans are almost certainly going to die in violence made worse in Iraq, and not only there, by the substantial aid some Americans, in their torture of Iraqi prisoners, have given to our enemies in this war. And by the appallingly dilatory response to the certain torture and probable murder committed in that prison.
The nation's response must, of course, include swift and public prosecutions. And the destruction of that prison. And punctilious conformity to legal obligations -- and, now, to some optional procedures -- concerning persons in American custody. But this is not enough.
One question is: Are the nation's efforts in the deepening global war -- the world is more menacing than it was a year ago -- helped or hindered by Rumsfeld's continuation as the appointed American most conspicuously identified with the conduct of the war? This is not a simple call. But being experienced, he will know how to make the call. Being honorable, he will so do.
He knows his Macbeth and will recognize the framing of the second question: Were he to resign, would discerning people say that nothing in his public life became him like the leaving of it?
This nation has always needed an ethic about the resignation of public officials. Such an ethic cannot be codified. It must grow in controlling power from precedent to precedent, as an unwritten common law, distilled from the behavior of uncommonly honorable men and women who understand the stakes. A nation, especially one doing the business of empire, needs high officials to be highly attentive to what is done in their departments -- attentive far down the chain of command, as though their very jobs depended on it.
Finally, the second axiom. It is from Charles de Gaulle: The graveyards are full of indispensable men.