Admit it: They seemed just a little subhuman, didn’t they — lying naked in a pile, as a grinning American soldier loomed overhead?
The infamous photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq define the word “dehumanize”: That’s what they were meant to do, and that’s what they did. These aren’t really people; they’re smelly scumbags who wouldn’t be in prison if they didn’t deserve it, so they deserved what they got.
It shouldn’t be necessary to mention this, but here goes: Even smelly scumbags have rights. (And many of those scumbags were — what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, yes: innocent.) Americans who still don’t get it are fundamentally clueless about the principles on which this country was founded. Many of them are weirdly proud of it.
As a nation newly minted by global standards, Americans don’t understand long national or sectarian memories, or the enduring passions they generate.
Armenians still seethe over an invasion of their land by Turks during the 11th century. Osama bin Laden is still angry about losing the Andalusian region of southern Spain when Spanish soldiers retook the region during the 15th century.
Every July, aging, bullet-headed Northern Irish Protestants put on silly hats and try to march through Catholic neighborhoods to commemorate a battle in 1690 between the forces of Protestant King William of Orange and Catholic King James II — and the Protestants won that one, for heaven’s sake.
Trust me: The bitter rage generated by the horrific photographs from Abu Ghraib will linger in the collective consciousness of the Arab world for generations.
Yes, but it’s all been taken care of, right? Soldiers court-martialed, the Supreme Court ordering the Bush administration to obey the law, prisoners being allowed to see lawyers?
Yeah, right. Human Rights Watch says otherwise, cloud and clear. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First of all, in a nation where accountability and honor at the highest levels of government had any resonance at all, debate over whether Donald Rumsfeld, ex-CIA Director George Tenet et al should have been fired after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke would be moot. Once the abuses became known, the scoundrels would have resigned on the spot. In Britain, in Japan, in dozens of nations I could name, that’s what they do: It happened on my watch. I am responsible. I am out of here.
In America, we court-martial sergeants and give their corrupt, defiant overlords the Medal of Freedom.
Then we re-elect the people who handed out the medals.
We have a president who says that on his say-so alone, anyone — including any American citizen (that means you) — can be thrown into a black hole without counsel, without charge, without ever seeing a courtroom, forever — and the laws of the land simply do not apply. Not even that silly old Constitution (have you ever read the damn thing?) that so many have fought and died to protect.
Tinhorn despots elsewhere have stood trial, with our nation’s approval, for far less.
Radical Islamists don’t hate us because they despise our “way of life”; they hate us because of our stinking hypocrisy.
All of which would be dismally endurable if our craven power elite had learned anything from Abu Ghraib. (Ambrose Bierce: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”) But they haven’t. Oh, a handful of grunts have been mustered out in infamy and shame. But the myths endure: “a few bad apples”; “I was out of the loop.”
The abuses continue. In a recent posting on its Web site, Human Rights Watch lays out in detail what is still going on with the approval of the Bush Administration. I summarize briefly:
* The U.S. government is still withholding key information about the treatment of detainees.
* Nine detainees have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan — including four cases defined by the Army as murder or manslaughter.
* There is growing evidence that detainees at Guantánamo have suffered torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. You can learn more about that by reading Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, a scathing indictment of government policy published by Chelsea Green.
* Harsh interrogation techniques have been used routinely throughout Iraq.
* At least 11 al-Qaida suspects, and probably more, have “disappeared” in U.S. custody.
* The CIA has transferred up to 150 detainees to countries known to practice torture routinely.
* Detainees arrested by foreign authorities in noncombat situations have been transferred to the United States without basic protections of their rights.
“Abu Ghraib was only the tip of the iceberg,” said Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch has called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of Rumsfeld, Tenet, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. Geoffrey Miller, former commander of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It rejected a recentArmy Inspector General’s report that is said to absolve Sanchez of responsibility.
The American media, which have the attention span of a gnat, have moved on to other issues that threaten the foundations of the Republic (you know — gay marriage, flag burning, Michael Jackson, etc.).
So — what about you? Have you read anything about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo other than what you’re fed by the mainstream media? Have you expressed your outrage to your congressional representatives? Have you donated ten bucks to Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International?
If not, chew on this quote for a while. It was written in 1945 by the Rev. Martin Niemoller, a belated convert to German anti-fascism:
“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”
And keep listening for the knock on your door.