BEING AN AMERICAN MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY?
Hopefully, the answer to this question is a resounding "No!"
Friday, May 7, 2004
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
The photograph staring back at me from above the fold of the newspaper at which I am now looking is as brutal as it is simple, as stark as it is shocking. A female US Army Private First Class dressed in what I can only describe as the military equivalent of "business casual" stands holding a dog-walker's leash at the other end of which is a naked bearded Iraqi man, his face contorted in what must be psychic, emotional- where not also physical- pain. The background is minimal, the apparently concrete floor is largely as bare as the man. The American woman soldier is young, not all that many years out of high school- as Pfc.s tend to be; the man is clearly her elder by at least a significant number of years: yet it is very clear which one of this pair is the dominator in this picture. The entire scene is horrifying-- revolting--- sickening.
And it is certainly not the real America: the America I was born in, in which I was raised, in which I live and work and vote- the America I love. I don't know how many in the Muslim World in general and the Arab portions of that World in general will be reading these words (after all, I don't know how many on my side of the globe will be reading this!) but, assuming that even only one Muslim in that troubled region we in the West call the Middle East can somehow read what I am about to write, let me emphatically reiterate: This is NOT the real America! Others might tell you otherwise-- but they will merely be repeating the Big Lie that is the very fuel of Hatred, the very Hatred that brought about the events of 11 September 2001.
No!-- this is not the REAL America!!
For I know my country and my fellow countrymen. More to the point (as anyone who has perused even small portions of this very website can easily discern), I know and understand the political and legal underpinnings of my country's culture and my Nation's government-- where these come from and how they have evolved and, while still quite far from perfection, improved over the years, decades, indeed well over two centuries. As an American, I inherently feel the words of the Declaration of Independence: that it is a self-evident Truth that all "are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", Rights that were fundamentally denied to the poor soul at the end of that leash in that photograph in a manner that is depraved-- demented--- disgusting. Muslims in general, Arabs in particular and especially Iraqis have every right and reason to be upset, angry and even bitter about the behavior that has been displayed in this and the other photographs of prisoner abuse at the hands of Americans which have so far come to light (among even more such photos, and even videos, of such scenes that have, apparently, yet to come into public view): I myself cannot pretend to know just what a scene such as that in the picture I have described above does to the feelings, the emotions, the very culture of a Muslim, for I am not a Muslim.
But I am an American and I do know just what such a scene as depicted in that photograph does (or, at least, should do) to the feelings, the emotions, the very culture of an American and I can tell you that my feelings are deeply hurt and pained and my emotions have been rubbed quite raw as my Nation's very culture- political, legal, governmental, societal- is now being called into question on the World stage. How can we Americans claim to so well know the meaning of the terms "equality" and "unalienable Rights" when someone, wearing the uniform of a soldier under our Nation's flag, has so debased their meaning as the woman Pfc. in that picture has done? I shudder when I also realize that the young woman soldier in the photo has been one of the principal beneficiaries of at least one meaning of the term "equality"-- for her even being able to serve in the United States Armed Forces is, in no small part, a result of the struggle of her gender to achieve the same "unalienable Rights" as the other. This concept of female equality might not translate so well to the Muslim World of whose culture she has treaded upon through her wrongful actions, yet- from an American standpoint- it provides something of a sharp contrast that makes the scene in that photo even the more revolting!
However, more revolting still is the caption underneath the photograph in this particular newspaper which suggests that a friend of this woman soldier claims that she was merely acting under orders. Acting under orders?! Wasn't that what at least some of the Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg after World War II raised as the primary defense for their atrocities- "I was just following orders"? Now, before I get angry e-mails from my own side of the Pond regarding a comparison between what this woman soldier is seen doing in the photograph and the worst Nazi atrocities, let me make it perfectly clear that I can certainly see a distinction between a prisoner on a dog leash and the gassing of millions who have been gathered in concentration camps just as certainly as I know the difference between check-kiting and murder in the first degree. But one surely has to admit that, while this is a distinction with difference in degree, it is also one with little, if any, in kind: just because check-kiting is a less serious offense than murder does not mean that check-kiting is therefore not, like murder, a serious crime; likewise, while the woman soldier in the photograph is surely not in the same league as those who, more than a half century ago, ordered the administering of Zyklon-B to the innocent and unsuspecting, she is, nevertheless, surely not then some innocent herself. As the Nuremberg Protocols themselves made clear to subsequent generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from countries all around the globe: there is such a thing as an unlawful order that need not- indeed, cannot- be obeyed even by the most loyal of military personnel... and such unlawful orders can be implied as well as express. Claiming that some act as despicable as that in the photo in today's newspaper was merely part of a military unit's general "culture" (as opposed to acts directly ordered by a superior) is no defense, just as- in the world of civilian jurisprudence- ignorance of the law is itself no defense.
I can only hope that what these photographs of Americans abusing prisoners show does not somehow come to besmirch the honor and sacrifice of those who are serving or have served, some of whom have died, in Iraq and elsewhere. Though none of my own loved ones have served in any of this Century's wars so far, I do know someone whose nephew was killed fighting in Iraq and I also know quite a number of other "someone"s in my life who have had their child or their sibling called to serve over there or in Afghanistan or in any number of places in which the American military is currently engaged. It would truly be a tragedy if this kind of terrible behavior by the few came to predominate the overall image of these many brave Americans who do not- and, in fact, will not- engage in such behavior: I cannot say that the appearance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and top military brass before each of the two congressional committees overseeing the Armed Forces- one in each house of Congress- earlier today gave me all that much comfort on this particular score.
I watched both hearings in their entirety and what I perceived was a Defense Department that- while its leadership expressed genuine outrage, indignation and apologetic sorrow at what the images of prisoner abuse already published (along with others we in the public have not seen- including moving images, as I've said) show- still seemed at least somewhat more concerned with the public relations angle than with altogether grasping the enormity of the reality of what has actually occurred. There seemed to be this aura of "if only we had seen the photos before the press had gotten hold of them, we could have mitigated their negative impact"; the whole thing ended up seeming to be more like a hearing about an advertising campaign that had somehow gone awry (all that were missing were the sales charts showing downward trends!) than a hearing on how well, or how badly, the upper echelons within the Pentagon had handled the news of such heinous activities.
In one testy exchange just before the Senate hearing adjourned, Senator Mark Dayton (D-Minnesota) made mention of the attempt of the Defense Department (with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers as the point man) to "suppress" the story (General Myers had asked the CBS television network, which intended to show the photos of prisoner abuse on its news magazine show- '60 Minutes II', to- to use Myers' own wording- "delay" their so doing; CBS acquiesced, though for only a couple weeks- until they themselves thought the story was going to "blow" in any event). Myers was rather indignant about Senator Dayton's use of the term "suppress"; Dayton replied that doing what Myers did was contrary to American concepts of Freedom of the Press (in American constitutional law, "Prior Restraint" of publication by the government is severely restricted and extraordinary), to which Secretary Rumsfeld argued that there were plenty of times in the Nation's history that a Free Press has given way to military exigency (true enough!) and that Senator Dayton's characterization of Myers' actions was out of line.
But there is a clear difference between a reporter in the field holding back on the details of battle for a reasonable length of time so as not to jeopardize troops on the field of battle (after all, no responsible journalist should so "telegraph" troop movements and tactics to the enemy)- something that was de riguer during the halcyon days of the American GI in World War II- and a reporter holding back on a story about the commission of atrocities by said troops! Myers argued, in his exchange with Senator Dayton, that he had only asked CBS to delay their broadcasting of the photos out of- yes- genuine fear of their obviously explosive effect on the situation on the ground in Iraq... but, tell me, when would that situation not have been so explosive?-- a day later? a week later? a month later? a year later? It seems to me that these photos would have had the same explosive effect on the situation in Iraq no matter when they finally came out. Further, and at worst, constantly pushing back the day these photos would eventually come to light can only end up smelling of cover-up!
I fear worse things to come, an even deeper shade of the darkness such acts display, for I well remember the military experts and counterterrorism pundits- most, if not all, of whom served in either the military or the intelligence-gathering bureaucracy (or both) of the United States- appearing nightly on the cable news channels during the opening months of the War on International Terrorism, some of whom opined how good it was to have Pakistan as an ally in our attempts to round up Taliban fighters and Al-Qa'eda operatives: Why? "Because", said one (whose opinion seemed to be most representative of many of his TV colleagues), "the Pakistanis can do things during interrogations that we Americans aren't allowed to do". I suppose he was here implying the very kind of human degradation I now see in this photo of the prisoner at the end of the dog leash in today's paper, if not outright physical torture. This particular expert on counterterrorism then further expressed his hope (with what, at times, I perceived to be a gleam in his eyes) that "the Pakistanis could, in this way, gain crucial information beneficial to the security of the United States against Terror". Problem is: if you benefit from the application of torture you yourself will not apply because to do so offends your sensibilities, are you- nonetheless- as responsible for such inhumane treatment as the torturer? After all, there is little difference between this and hiring a hit-man to kill someone because you do not want to have to do the messy deed yourself.
And now we are confronted with photographic evidence of Americans who, apparently, are willing to do it themselves!
Again, this is NOT the real America. And I still have faith that the American People will not at all tolerate those who perpetrated, ordered or suggested that which we see (and will continue to see) in such images not being brought to Justice. For, again, I know my country and I know my fellow countrymen... at least I hope I do!