Finding honor in Abu Ghraib

Posted: May 16, 2004 12:00 AM
Several voices, trying to sway the public temper -- if not exactly to overlook the grim events, at least to put them in an anesthetic perspective -- are saying: "So's your old man." And there is no questioning the truth of it, which is that the people to whom President Bush has extended an apology are people who have spent very little time deploring the atrocities of the enemy we have faced and continue to face. They are, then, hypocrites.

But what does that do for us, to label them as such?

Nothing very much, because our concern is over the behavior of British and American troops, not the behavior of Baathists. Having apologized to the enemy and to the Arab community, what else is in order?

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was quick to ask for the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld. Sen. Harkin, just a few months ago, was counseling the election of Howard Dean as president of the United States, which tells us something of his own judgment. He is part of a little group of left toughies who are calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal -- Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel and other solons. The trouble with leaving it to such folk to prescribe the norms of behavior in Abu Ghraib prison is, according to one commentator, "that one ends up blowing opportunities to effect true reforms."

But we do not need any reforms. Reforms are something we need in Guantanamo, where we have isolated a new species not previously known in the taxonomic order: the man who is not a prisoner of war, not a traitor, but an enemy combatant. If there is reason to be vexed by Secretary Rumsfeld, it is surely that he has not encouraged a table of organization that deals with that phenomenon other than simply by sticking him in a corner of Cuba without any avenue of hope or resolution. If it was decided that such a prisoner should face the firing squad, then at least there would be judicial proceedings to contend with, successfully or unsuccessfully.

But there are no reforms indicated in the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. What was done was against (1) regulations, (2) Army convention, and (3) civilized tradition. What do the reformers want? Pre-induction courses for U.S. soldiers in which they are told not to strip and torture captives and photograph them naked? Should there be, also, a course on how they should not fire guns at their own officers? Is there nothing that can be taken for granted?

The Democratic offensive has to limit itself to the failure to keep superiors informed. The lieutenant affiliated with the delinquent soldiers should have done more than he did, should have passed word about what happened on to battalion headquarters, which should have passed word to regiment, to corps, to Army, to the Pentagon, to Rumsfeld -- and to the president. Rumsfeld held back for several weeks telling Bush about it, and he has been reprimanded. We reasonably assume that Rumsfeld thought the delay would give Army investigators time to trace the special rot that infected the perpetrators. Something a little different from just plain original sin. Everybody suffers from that, but not everybody ties strings to genitalia and simulates electrocution.

The singularity of this offense -- precisely its failure to be routine -- puts it on a plane with the singularity of those Arabs in Fallujah who hacked Americans to pieces and hung them up on a bridge. We swore to avenge that crime and are bent on doing so. But we have distinguished between those Arabs and others who do not engage in such conduct.

Our singling out the men -- and women -- at Abu Ghraib as different, as criminals to be distinguished from non-criminals, is all the perspective we need in handling this case. No reforms are needed. What is needed is the re-energizing of codes of conduct. After the My Lai massacre in 1968, we needed not fresh rules, but reaffirmation of existing rules, and the vindication of American honor came in the corporate feeling of revulsion over what was done. The corporate sense of revulsion over what was done at Abu Ghraib is what regenerates Western honor now.