Their Humiliation, and Ours

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I thought war was hard to explain to a child. But compared to this, war is easy. When my daughters saw the pictures flashed on the Today show and wanted to know "Why are there wires attached to that man's hands?", I could not bring myself to explain that this is designed to maim a man's soul: in a culture that sanctifies masculine pride and sexual privacy, you strip him and make him masturbate in front of a mocking female captor, or put him on a leash or pretend you are going to electrocute him. But I did have to explain that the bad guys — this time — were seven U.S. soldiers, of whom it might be said that seldom has such harm been done to so many by so few.

This "does not represent the America that I know," President Bush said of the events at Abu Ghraib, and how tempting it was to go there. The pictures can't be real. If they are real, they can't be typical. If they are typical, this can't be America — unless, perhaps, you are Rush Limbaugh, who invited listeners to identify with the frustration the soldiers must have felt being shot at by the ungrateful Iraqi people; so naturally they felt the need to "blow some steam off," to "have a good time." Others noted that there was less outcry when Saddam was doing the torturing, or argued that "they would do the same to us" if they had a chance. When we are reduced to insisting that our depravity isn't as bad as the other guy's, we have fallen deep into a pit of moral equivalence that reveals what we have lost.

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You could track the stages of grief, because something precious had surely died: a hope that the world might one day come to see Americans as we see ourselves. Instead, we have had to see ourselves as the world sees us. On the very site where Saddam drilled holes in prisoners' hands or dipped them in acid, the American guards, instead of planting new values, harvested the ones already there. I heard the pain last week of people who had supported the war out of principle, who continued to support it after weapons weren't found and soldiers kept getting killed and other nations pulled out, and did so because, as Brigadier General Kimmitt put it last week, "we came here to help." That meant at the very least ensuring that Abu Ghraib was no longer a torture chamber. Now the front page of a Baghdad paper shows the defiled prisoners and the caption: "This is the freedom and democracy that Bush promised us." Psychologically, if not in fact, these pictures shred the last good reason to feel righteous about having gone to war.

Denial was of little use because the pictures told the story in a universal language of domination. And the perps in the pictures were somehow familiar, the giddy weekend warriors under the command of the traveling window-blind salesman, the boy next door — and the girl. This time women can't privately tell one another that if only we were in charge, we might all have a chance of getting along, because there she is, Private England, gloating, holding the leash. And the female general in command was telling reporters last summer that conditions were so much nicer now at the prison that she was worried the prisoners "wouldn't want to leave," as though she expected a spread soon in House & Garden. Nor was there much room for philosophical debate over means and ends or a game of scruples over whether it's O.K. to torture a prisoner who knows where a suitcase nuke has been planted in downtown St. Louis. These prisoners were not the big fish, and these guards were not trained and disciplined interrogators. What they did was give the jihadists a gift of incalculable value. Our enemies call the U.S. godless, depraved and corrupt, and now they have a p.r. weapon of mass destruction that they will use as another reason to kill any other infidels they can. That's why we look for powerful people to be punished, even out of proportion to their responsibility. Soldiers should not be the only ones expected to sacrifice for the safety of the country. This event requires, to use the military term, an asymmetrical response.

In the search for any conceivable solace, I find it in the varieties of courage the other soldiers have shown, including the courage to report the ones who did this. Humiliation — in this case America's own — may beget humility, of which there has at times been a shortage in the face of so daunting a challenge as Iraq poses. And as for the violation of American values, we must recalculate the cost of the post-9/11 instinct to change the rules we play by, detain whomever we need to, forget due process and forgo the Geneva Convention. If this is indeed a fight to the death, what is it we are fighting for, if not the values we seem so ready to sacrifice on the grounds that this is a different kind of war? There will be other causes and threats, and we will need not only the power to confront them but the moral authority as well.