Mona Charen

 But now any invocation of our values and our standards will be met with contempt and dismissal by the Middle East audience. Even the upcoming trials of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants have lost some of their power to teach. Already awash in conspiracy theories and mistrust of us, Iraqis will now give even more credence to every crackpot and vicious explanation of our behavior handed to them by Al Jazeera or the local newspapers. Have no doubt that this episode, while it will be seen in America as a terrible aberration, will be viewed by Arabs across the Middle East as merely the tip of the iceberg. They know what goes on in their own prisons, and now it will be nearly impossible to convince them that we are different.

 Meanwhile, every Iraqi who is pro-U.S. and pro-democracy will have to explain himself to his countrymen. He is siding with the private who held a naked Iraqi by a leash.

 It goes without saying that most American military personnel are honorable and decent, and would never commit such acts. And if this war were being waged in a pre-media age, a few episodes of this kind would not matter. But those pictures have been burned into the eyes of the whole world.

 Is it possible to repair this? Burning down the Abu Ghraib prison might be a good symbolic act. Highly photogenic. Well-placed stories about the thousands of Americans -- military and civilian -- who are risking their lives to help the Iraqis build a better future (I know one -- Simone Ledeen) will help balance the ledger, too. But most of all, Iraqis will have to see that someone is punished.

 One does not want to railroad any American soldier to satisfy the lust for revenge in the Iraqi street. But they must see that our system of justice really does function as advertised. It may be our last chance at the hearts and minds of a critical audience.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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