Jewish World Review May 17, 2004 / 26 Iyar, 5764
A bit of perspective, please
The video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg adds yet another layer of horror and cruelty to the record of Islamic fanatics. "Pure Evil," headlined the New York Daily News; "Prisoner Abuse, Iraqi Style," wrote the Boston Herald. It reveals a culture in which "hatred trumps bread," to use Cynthia Ozick's phrase from the Wall Street Journal A culture that glories in the death of innocents thus makes clear whom we are fighting and why. We are up against people who are incited to suppress the most basic human instinct, which is to live, and are willing to kill themselves in their efforts to destroy as many innocent civilians as they can. Our culture, which celebrates life, is utterly mystified.
Let us then not go overboard in our revulsion at the Iraq prison abuses. The photographs have been broadcast endlessly in Arab media and denounced from every minaret, but the reaction on the street has been mild--milder than here! The photos offend Arab sensibilities, just as they offend ours. But in virtually every Muslim country, from Morocco to Pakistan, the people know that their prisons systematically practice real torture--and even murder--and that their autocratic leaderships visit barbarity on their own people as a matter of everyday routine.
Hypocrisy. Saddam Hussein was a mass murderer. Syria's Hafez Assad wiped out more than 10,000 of his own citizens in Hama in a few days. Jordan's King Hussein broke the Abu Nidal terrorist gang by threatening their members (a threat on occasion carried out) with the murder of their mothers; it worked. Egypt has endured decades of emergency rule and what a recent Human Rights Watch report characterized as a "torture epidemic." Then there is the Saudi royal family, global financier of Muslim religious extremists, whose de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, blamed the terrorism now infecting his kingdom on the Zionists and whose interior minister blamed 9/11 on Jews. Never mind the Palestinians, whose major gift to mankind is ever new forms of terrorism and whose Hamas members reportedly decapitated an Israeli soldier and played football with his head.
The Arab media did attack a government as depraved, brutal, and "satanic." It was, alas, the United States. The hypocrisy is transparent. Arab media elites know full well what American values are, but they simulate rage because that's the prudent thing to do in autocracies that survive by focusing internal resentment on externals, like America, the West, and Israel.
It is said that the images from Abu Ghraib blur the moral difference between America and Saddam Hussein. This reflects the moral obtuseness of those who say such things. Moral obtuseness, of course, is an art form for many in Europe, who consistently ignore the crimes of terrorists. Such people, in the words of Raymond Aron, are "merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes, as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrine."
None of this is to excuse what happened at Abu Ghraib. It has stained our high moral purpose. It is no defense to say that the offenders were just a benighted few or were seeking valuable intelligence, or even that torture is prevalent throughout the Arab world. We hold ourselves to a different standard. Donald Rumsfeld acted in this tradition when he went before Congress and held himself accountable as a civilian leader in a civilized society.
In all the furor over the photographs from Abu Ghraib, what's been overlooked by many is the fact that the American military was not only already investigating allegations but announced that the inquiry had begun three months ago. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's investigation was thorough, and his conclusion was that the abuse was the result of the actions of a handful of guards and their superiors, not the result of an official policy or order.
What turned a smoldering investigation into a media firestorm, of course, were the photos. But once again the American public has kept perspective better than the news media. In two polls, a Washington Post /ABC and a CNN/ USA Today/ Gallup poll, roughly 70 percent reject any move to oust Rumsfeld, recognizing that it would be an implicit admission that a central thrust of the war against terrorism has been a failure. Rumsfeld should remain: He is a uniquely gifted secretary of defense.
President Bush's critics seek to use Rumsfeld as a pinata and this scandal as a chance to discredit the entire Iraqi venture. But we must not lose faith. The murder of Nick Berg underscores the stakes. Our enemies will never understand America and its values, but they would surely recognize weakness, if we ever allowed them to see it.
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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman