Test of character

Posted: May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

 Sometimes a rainbow is reflected in a drop of rain -- and sometimes it's just a muddy mess. The episode at Abu Ghraib certainly revealed the depravity of a few American military personnel. But the reaction to it has revealed character, as well.
On the muddy mess front, there is, of course, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who seems to have finally toppled over the deep end. He took to the Senate floor to pronounce that, "Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management -- U.S. management."

 That is a breathtakingly vicious thing to say. It's the sort of thing you'd expect from Fidel Castro, not the senator from Massachusetts. When questioned about it, Sen. John Kerry at first distanced himself from Kennedy's comment, saying he wouldn't have framed it that way -- but then, perhaps spurred by friendship and loyalty, he told radio host Don Imus, "But I know what he meant and so do you."

 Do we? I think I do, but it's not a comforting knowledge. It sounds to me as if Kennedy is an America-hater -- ready to tar an entire nation with the sins of a few.

 Kerry's response has been less than awe-inspiring, as well. He has denounced the abuses at Abu Ghraib as evidence of a "major failure of command" and has called upon Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

 Democrats may be slightly embarrassed by the fact that, when challenged, Kerry could name only two Democrats he'd appoint as secretary of defense (Sen. Carl Levin and former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry), whereas two Republicans also made his list: Sens. John McCain and John Warner.

 But where is the evidence for a "major failure of command"? As far as we know, the incidents at Abu Ghraib were isolated. Kerry further raised the matter of the Bush administration's -- specifically Donald Rumsfeld's -- unwillingness to grant prisoner of war status to detainees at Guantanamo. But if Kerry would do things differently, he should say so.

 There are solid reasons for declining to give POW status. In the first place, these are not regulation soldiers fighting for a government. They do not observe the laws of war (no uniforms, no chain of command). Further, if we agree to treat them as POWs, we forfeit our right to question them, because POWs are required under the Geneva Convention to state only name, rank and serial number. In Kerry's rendering, our unwillingness to grant POW status to Guantanamo's inmates arises from "arrogance" and contempt for international law -- an arrogance that led directly to Abu Ghraib.

 That is a repellent suggestion.

 In fact, the most cheering aspect of this awful, awful week has been Don Rumsfeld. When the abuse was first revealed, Rumsfeld was shocked and grieved. It was written on his face and in his voice. The usually jaunty and upbeat secretary of defense was stricken (as were we all). But with great dignity and true manliness, he accepted responsibility. "It happened on my watch," he acknowledged. That was the first important thing Rumsfeld did last week. He gave parents around the country something to show their sons: This is how a grown-up behaves.

 But the second thing he did was even more crucial. He bounced back. With presidential candidates and newspaper editorials calling for his head, he not only managed not to lose it, he did something else -- he thought of his responsibilities more than of himself. He offered a glimpse of this during the first day of congressional hearings, when Sen. Evan Bayh asked whether his resignation might not be a signal of how seriously we took the events at Abu Ghraib. Without flinching Rumsfeld replied, "It might."

 A few days later, Rumsfeld stood at a podium in the Pentagon taking questions from midshipmen and cadets, and ordinary soldiers. But he began with a sturdy demonstration of strength and rectitude. Speaking of the response of the Pentagon's officers to seeing those pictures, he said: "They were stunned; absolutely stunned that any Americans wearing the uniform could do what they did. We are heartsick at what they did, for the people they did it to. We are heartsick for the really well-earned reputation as a force for good in the world that all of us -- military, civilians and those Americans who support us -- will pay. And I know I speak to everyone listening when I say that those acts ought not to be allowed to define us -- either in the eyes of the world or in our own eyes. We know who we are. We know what our standards are. You know what you're taught. And the terrible actions of a few don't change that."

 No indeed. Just as Rumsfeld was reminding the nation of our virtues, our enemies were reminding us of why we fight. They kidnapped an innocent American businessman, Nick Berg, and beheaded him -- all captured complete with dying screams -- on videotape.

 Rumsfeld does us proud. He is just what we need. He should not resign.