Little the US has done in its War on Terror has sparked so much outrage among Americans as photographs of US troops torturing and sexually abusing Iraqis in Saddam Hussein’s infamous torture and rape rooms at Abu Ghraib.
Back at the beginning, most Americans proudly waved the flag when President Bush vowed revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Crowds at football games exulted when the announcement came over stadium speakers that US bombs had begun falling on people in Afghanistan.
Likewise, most Americans did not seem outraged when:
.The US war against Afghanistan killed and injured thousands of innocent Afghanis.
.Captives were beaten to death at US prison camps in Afghanistan, apparently during interrogation.
.The US sent some Afghanistan war prisoners to Syria, Jordan and Egypt, so that the men could be tortured.
.Military strategy led the US to embrace Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, regimes that torture and kill their own citizens.
.US troops shipped hundreds of Afghanistan war captives, in chains, to Guantanamo Bay, to place them beyond protection of US law. US leaders rejected that these men should be afforded Geneva Convention rights.
.US forces steamrollered into Iraq, despite that the rest of the world did not think Iraq was a threat, and despite the fact that UN weapons inspectors had found not a single weapon of mass destruction.
.The Bush Administration vowed to “shock and awe” Iraqis with a massive aerial bombardment. A Pentagon official gloated, “There will be no safe place in Baghdad.” (Baghdad is a city, not a military target.)
.US troops started acting as occupiers, not liberators, conducting repressive operations with names such as “Iron Hammer,” and kicking down families’ doors in the middle of the night, hooding Iraqi men and boys and removing them to prison camps, where thousands still languish.
.US forces have killed at least 10,000 Iraqis and injured and maimed thousands more, many of them civilians.
.US officials do not even to bother to count how many Iraqis or Afghanis they kill.
Are Americans outraged because the torture at Abu Ghraib brings all these brutal and dehumanizing acts to a tipping point, toward compassion?
A closer look shows that the outrage takes two forms, both based on flawed notions. Both reveal ugly truths.
The first is, “How can America do this?” Such outrage comes from the self-congratulatory fantasy taught by our government, schools, the History Channel and our news media that the US is “better” than other nations, that Americans are “better” than other people.
We’ve claimed to be a master race, with a manifest destiny to shape and control the rest of the world. The better we think we are, the more rules we believe we can break.
Yet we’re proving just as susceptible as any other people to fear, equally compliant to a government’s propaganda to support war and torture.
The second form of outrage is, “How can America do this? Torturing people and letting the photos slip out dooms our war effort by hardening Arab hearts and minds against us!” Such outrage is based on the flawed notion that the war is good, that violence — our violence — can win people’s hearts and minds. Reality and human nature say otherwise: If you kill me, I can’t vote for you. If you kill my kids, I won’t vote for you.
These notions inform the outrage expressed by President Bush and other politicians who led us into war. They need a “clean” American victory if they want to keep their jobs. Their outrage most likely does not come from new-found compassion for Iraqis.
Senator James Inhofe, however, is both brutal and honest. He said he and many others are imore outraged by the outrage at the treatment than we are by the treatmenti of the prisoners. On this view, talking about the torture, or having compassion for the victims, is a graver crime than the torture. Free speech and compassion impede war.
The belief that America and American wars are God’s gift to the world is naive. So is the belief that we can have a war without torture by both sides.
As a nation, Americans wanted war and shouted down anyone who disagreed. If we don’t like the picture of ourselves from Abu Ghraib, then we should not like the war.
BRIAN J. FOLEY is a professor at Touro College Law Center in Huntington, NY. He can be reached at BrianF@tourolaw.edu