There’s No Such Thing as a Good War Crime

Savage, barbaric and cruel atrocities seem to quickly be replacing respect for human life in President Bush’s war in Iraq.

Apparently, neither side in the conflict can claim the moral ground.

For more than a year, the Arab World has been hearing rumors of Iraqi prisoners being brutalized, abused and even murdered in American-run prisons. That wasn’t confirmed until last week when photographs and videos of the brutality, sexual assaults and rape, and killings were finally made public.

The release of the photographs sparked a debate in the United States about who is more cruel, “them” or “us.” The debate became more strident with the release this week of a video of Philadelphia freelance contractor Nicholas Berg being stabbed and then beheaded apparently in Iraq by his al-Qaeda-linked kidnappers.

In this debate, it seems that how you view the conflict also reflects your view on which atrocity deserves to be more condemned.

Sadly, there should be no distinction between the atrocities committed by either side. Neither can the atrocities be used as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of either side.

Berg’s murder is as much a reflection on the Arab World’s problems as the prisoner murders and abuses are a reflection on American society’s failings and double standards. The fact is that racism is an integral part of American society just as religious fanaticism is an integral part of the Arab World.

Somewhere in between sit the majority of Americans and Arabs abhor the acts of both sides but find themselves overcome by emotion and anger and believe they must protect themselves from the broad brush of condemnation. Ironically, the debate in the United States seems to be exactly on the point of who is worse? Americans or Arabs?

The defense of the Iraqi prison abuse scandal is, “They are doing worse things to us.” They cite the murder and mutilations of the four Americans in Iraq by Iraqi rebels many weeks ago as evidence that “they are worse.”

The release of the photographs and the hesitation of the Bush administration to release more photos and videos that sources claim depict far worse conduct by American soldiers, including murder, seems to reinforce the view in the Arab World that the Americans are worse.

But I see similarities in the conduct of both sides. America and the Arab World both have their fanatics and extremists and murderers.

I saw this ugliness in the faces of the American soldiers who posed for the pictures. Why does an American pose for a picture next to human beings who are being brutalized, sexually assaulted or worse, unless they have an inner confidence that they will not be punished. Worse, I believe the soldiers planned on bringing the pictures back to the states as a perverse kind of badge of courage and honor.

They didn’t take the pictures with the same sense of shame as many people who rent pornography in America to be viewed in the privacy of their own homes.

The Iraqi rebels who murdered Berg acted differently but had the same mission. They used his murder to make a political statement. Before killing him, the captors stood around him, hooded and defiantly reading a ridiculous, meaningless statement about how they were fighting to avenge American atrocities against Muslims in Iraq.

Strange. I didn’t see them appearing in any videos in the past harshly denouncing Saddam Hussein for the murder of other Muslims.

Their hatred is no different than the hatred I see everyday in America. To assert that some how America is a better country because we respect life more than the Arab World is ridiculous and absurd.

The truth is, we are all human, Arab and American. We all have our fanatics, our silent majority who are driven by the emotions of the events that occur around them, and by small groups of moderates who sometimes can’t seem to get their voices out loud enough to bring sanity back to this insane war.

How will this ugly conflict end?

When the majority of Americans and Arabs start to control their emotions, stop blaming the other side and start accepting their own responsibility for having harmed the other side.

When both sides stop using the killings by the other side to justify their own actions.

And, when both sides look at murder, not on the basis of the politics, religion or nationality of the victims or the killers, but on the basis of one single moral principle.

That may seem like too much to ask, but we should never stop asking for it.

RAY HANANIA is anationally syndicated Palestinian American columnist. He can be reached at: