The Treatment of Abu Ghraib Prisoners
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
by Dennis Johnson
The writer of ""We Answer to a Higher Authority" can't say the treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners, e.g., having women's panties pulled over the head, is worse than the treatment of Nick Berg, i.e., having his head cut of with a knife while alive, if a common standard of conduct is applied. So he presents the Ethic of Higher Authority to justify a tougher standard of conduct for Americans and, voila, the naked pyramid and panty clad head are worse offenses than the kidnapping and beheading.
What principle underlies the Higher Authority argument? Is the American acclaimed Creator greater than the Muslim acclaimed Allah? That sounds like religious bigotry. Has American civilization achieved a superior sense of rights, of which Middle East savages are ignorant? That reeks of racism.
Is it that Americans have declared that all people are endowed with unalienable rights (life, liberty, justice) therefore Americans must respect those rights, while people who haven't acknowledged the rights can ignore them? If we, by declaration, created the Higher Authority and extended the endowed rights, can't we likewise revoke that authority and retract those rights? If we cannot, is it because the rights were acknowledged, not created, by our declaration and are true for all people everywhere whether we acknowledge them or not? If the rights exist without acknowledgment, have a common source and are held in common, isn't any violator accountable to the source of the rights; the same authority Americans answer to?
The answer is YES. Human rights extend to all humans, and all humans are accountable for their violations of human rights. No national deity or level of civilization puts a special obligation on some people to answer to a Higher Authority.
Waiver of the common standard of conduct rests only on grounds which justify the conduct. Such grounds relevant to the conduct described above are "forfeiture of rights," which distinguishes arrest from kidnapping; and "hierarchy of rights," a doctrine that lesser rights may be sacrificed to preserve greater rights. If stressing Abu Ghraib prisoners, known or believed to have knowledge of terrorist plans, was to save lives, it may be justified. If conduct is justified, no condemnation is due even when a common standard of conduct is applied.
I don't know enough about the events at Abu Ghraib to say they are justified.
I can safely say that kidnapping and killing Nick Berg was not justified.
However: BERG'S MURDER WAS A WORSE VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS THAN THE ABUSE OF PRISONERS AT ABU GHRAIB AND DESERVES GREATER CONDEMNATION. No embarrassment or hypocrisy attaches to this statement.
Mr. Berg-Andersson responds to Mr. Johnson:
First of all, I don't know where you somehow got the idea- from that 11 May Commentary of mine- that I thought the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal was worse than the beheading of Nick Berg or that I, in addition, thought it the least bit embarrassing or hypocritical to think so! After all, I was the one who there wrote:
Acts such as the cowardly and despicable homicide placed for all to see on the Internet today do not excuse or justify any admittedly lesser acts of inhumanity on the part of Americans such as those I addressed in my 7 May Commentary.
In the immediately preceding paragraph to the above, I also wrote:
Just because our enemies might include those who have the unmitigated gall to cry out Allahu akbar! ("God is most Great") even as they so openly deny the unalienable Rights endowed by that very God to their victims (as those who murdered Mr. Berg have done), doesn't mean that we should then sink to their level or even think of approaching such a low, no matter how minimal the effort to do so or how distant the approach.
This was an obvious acknowledgement that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was "minimal" in "effort" and "distant" in "approach" as compared to the "low" that the murder of Nick Berg so clearly represents. Thus, I clearly accepted the fact that what happened at Abu Ghraib was of a class I myself defined as "admittedly lesser acts of inhumanity" compared to what happened to Nick Berg (and, if I think Abu Ghraib is not as bad as Nick Berg's assassination, then- since comparison is commutative- I must also believe Nick Berg's assassination is worse than Abu Ghraib!)
Furthermore, I wrote- at the very start of my 11 May piece:
The act [that is, Nick Berg's beheading] was cruel and barbarous in the extreme.
I still don't see how I have failed to condemn that brutal, inhumane act.
Next, you wrote: "What principle underlies the Higher Authority argument? Is the American acclaimed Creator greater than the Muslim acclaimed Allah? That sounds like religious bigotry."--- I, of course, reject such a claim that the "Creator" of Thomas Jefferson and the others in the Continental Congress of mid-Summer 1776 who tweaked and otherwise modified Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence is, in any way, superior to the Muslim's "Allah". In one of the sections of my 11 May Commentary I have already quoted earlier in this response, I noted how Nick Berg's "unalienable Rights endowed by that very God" (yes, the "very God" to whom his murderer and accomplices to same showed praise- in the phrase Allahu akbar- as Mr. Berg was being killed); clearly, my use of the language of the Declaration ("unalienable Rights") in that sentence shows that I strongly agree that "the Creator" of Thomas Jefferson et al. is, indeed, the "Allah" of Islam!
Then you wrote: "Has American civilization achieved a superior sense of rights, of which Middle East 'savages' are ignorant? That reeks of racism." I myself have never claimed so; indeed, in at least one other Commentary on this very website, I wrote- before the War in Iraq had even begun- in opposition to the despicable (and, yes, racist) concept that, somehow, the Islamic World is inherently incapable of Liberty, Justice and Republican Democracy (though I do feel that Islam, as a Civilization, has yet to have fully hashed out that which we here in the West call "Church and State" [in the Middle East context, I suppose we should use the phrase "Mosque and State"], the Separation of which is, in my opinion, a key component of such concepts as Liberty, Justice and Republican Democracy-- and I have written about all this in previous Commentaries as well!)
You then further write: "Is it that Americans have declared that all people are endowed with unalienable rights (life, liberty, justice) therefore Americans must respect those rights, while people who haven't acknowledged the rights can ignore them? If we, by declaration, created the Higher Authority and extended the endowed rights, can't we likewise revoke that authority and retract those rights? If we cannot, is it because the rights were acknowledged, not created, by our declaration and are true for all people everywhere whether we acknowledge them or not? If the rights exist without acknowledgment, have a common source and are held in common, isn't any violator accountable to the source of the rights; the same authority Americans answer to?
[beginning of your next paragraph:] The answer is YES."
I agree with your most affirmative "YES" being, in general, the proper answer to your last two questions for, indeed, as you yourself next declaim "Human rights extend to all humans, and all humans are accountable for their violations of human rights."- on which you will get no argument from me!
However, I disagree with at least the last portion of your very next sentence, where you write "No national deity or level of civilization puts a special obligation on some people to answer to a Higher Authority." While I agree with you that any "special obligation on some people to answer to a Higher Authority" is not at all based on "national deity or level of civilization" (and I have already dismissed both such sources of "special obligation" earlier in this very response), this nonetheless does not mitigate any such "special obligation". I will now finally answer your original question: "What principle underlies the Higher Authority argument?":
The principle involved is one along the lines of "If you are going to profess it, you'd better be living it!" and the "Higher Authority" of which I spoke is not "the Creator" which has, according to the Declaration of Independence, "endowed" persons with "unalienable Rights" but- as you yourself seem to be pointing out- these very unalienable Rights in and of themselves. If, for instance, one finds out a neighbor has cheated on his wife and proceeds to lecture that neighbor on the evils of Adultery, then one had better not be caught thereafter in an intimate moment with the wife of a neighbor! I think one can clearly see how the lecturer would have, in such a scenario, completely lost all moral authority on the issue of Adultery.
Likewise, if America is going to profess- as at least one of the major goals of its current military operation in post-Saddam Iraq- the bringing of "Liberty and Justice for all" to that country, then America had better always be seen as acting on the best possible carrying out of just such Liberty and Justice. Without doubt, what went on- and was photographed and videotaped- at Abu Ghraib just doesn't "cut the mustard" in this regard!
You write "Waiver of the common standard of conduct rests only on grounds which justify the conduct. Such grounds relevant to the conduct described above are 'forfeiture of rights,' which distinguishes arrest from kidnapping; and 'hierarchy of rights,' a doctrine that lesser rights may be sacrificed to preserve greater rights. If stressing Abu Ghraib prisoners, known or believed to have knowledge of terrorist plans, was to save lives, it may be justified. If conduct is justified, no condemnation is due even when a common standard of conduct is applied."
These legal concepts known as "forfeiture of rights" and "hierarchy of rights" are all well and good in a generally equal system of Jurisprudence (that is, a system where the Parties before the Court are in more or less equal standing)- such as we claim (and certainly hope!) for the Legal System- whether the case or controversy to be adjudicated be Civil or Criminal- of the United States of America and its several States and, yes, these concepts also apply to a situation such as what we find in Iraq (for example, I would not at all claim that Coalition authorities in that country do not have the power of arrest!)
But, here's the problem: What was done at Abu Ghraib to "stress" (and let's not mince any words here: "stress" is merely a euphemism for "torture", on however low a scale compared to the worst possible tortures imaginable) the prisoners was most offensive to Muslim culture and sensibilities (to take just one example, piling hooded naked men into a pyramid has a certain sexual connotation antithetical to those very sensibilites; I need not here use any other examples which also have serious anti-Islam sexual overtones). It has now been shown to the World at large that at least some, however tiny a minority, of our troops in Iraq didn't care one whit about a Muslim's sensibilities, regardless of the justification- real or imagined- for what was done in that prison; unfortunately, those soldiers are seen- by many a friend (as well as, certainly, foe)- as being the "real" America and their misguided purpose is, thus, seen as our purpose.
Therefore, these soldiers at Abu Ghraib created a most serious international incident which threatens the very mission in Iraq (again, assuming that at least one of the goals of that mission is bringing Liberty, Justice and Republican Democracy to that country). I was- given what I had written in my 11 May Commentary on which you are commenting in this 'vox Populi'- accused, in Dan Stansbury's 13 May 'vox Populi', of "aiding and comforting the enemies of our Nation during a time of war" and being "at worst seditious". But how much more seditious than I was what was seen as having happened at Abu Ghraib? Isn't it far more "comforting to the enemies of our Nation during a time of war" than anything *I* could have possibly written to so allow those enemies to be able to thereafter more easily say to the Muslim World: 'See what those Americans have done? Their whole "Liberty and Justice for all" is a sham because it only applies to those like them and not to people like you. You Muslims have a much better future with us than with America's so called "Democracy"!' Wrongheaded as that hypothetical statement on the part of an Iraqi insurgent or Islamist terrorist might be: fact is, statements along those lines have resonated throughout the Muslim World, such resonance only serving to make the job of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines overseas all the harder (not to mention the jobs of all those here at home associated with Homeland Security- whether first responder or investigator or prosecutor), such resonance largely made possible by irrefutable visual evidence of what went on at Abu Ghraib!
In addition, I watched many a "talking head" on TV, I listened to many a call-in talk show on the radio, I read the Letters to the Editor section in many a newspaper, in the days and weeks immediately following Nick Berg's summary, and most undeserved, execution. In that period, I perceived a large chunk of the American populace saying "OK, now we don't have to worry any more about what transpired at Abu Ghraib! What was done to those prisoners was deserved after all!!" Don't tell me that a large minority- if not even a majority- of my fellow countrymen felt this way, because I clearly saw otherwise! My 12 May Commentary was largely in response to this attitude that Nick Berg's beheading now, in and of itself, at least somewhat justified what was done at Abu Ghraib some six months earlier.
Yes, Nick Berg's murder IS much worse than the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and, yes, the former DOES deserve much greater condemnation than the latter. However, nothing in the previous sentence can possibly imply that Abu Ghraib merits NO condemnation. Instead, the [ahem!] "stressing" of prisoners carried out at Abu Ghraib, as evidenced by the photos and videos of same, demanded- and yet demands- serious condemnation. Unless, of course, one wants us to so utterly fail in Iraq!
It's pretty simple, really: we can do Iraq the right way-- or not.