- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Two questions would destroy at least half the agenda of the political left: “Compared to what?” and “At what cost?”

A third question would wipe out most of the rest of the left’s agenda and demolish the vision behind that agenda: “What hard evidence do you have?”

It is not just the left’s agenda on economics, race or the environment that cannot withstand a serious examination in the light of these questions. The whole current endless carrying-on in the media about prison abuses in Iraq could not stand up under these questions.

No one defends the abuse of Iraqi prisoners or thinks those who are guilty should get off without punishment. But compared to what?

Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, compares events in the prison to what happened under Saddam Hussein, suggesting it is the same thing, just “under American management.” People in Iraq don’t seem to think so — they know from personal experience what it was like under Saddam.

The distinguished British magazine the Economist, despite its own editorial outrage, reports Iraqis are not nearly as upset as Americans or Europeans, and are in fact somewhat puzzled at how we have gone ballistic over this episode.

Whenever you have a couple of hundred thousand human beings involved in any operation, you can rest assured there will be some absolute jackasses among them — regardless of what country, race, religion or ideology these people come from.

Can the others spend all their time monitoring the jackasses? That brings us to our second question: “At what cost?”

With a guerrilla and terrorist war under way in Iraq, nuclear weapons being made in North Korea, and American troops deployed in countries around the world, do those calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s head think he should try to keep track of every sparrow’s fall down at the level of individual privates and noncoms in the army?

A colonel is lucky to know what all his second lieutenants are doing. A defense secretary who knows what all the privates and noncoms are doing could only be grossly neglecting his job. He wouldn’t have time to find his way around the Pentagon.

The Bush-haters are convinced the prison scandal could not have happened without orders from higher-ups. Here then is our third question: “What hard evidence do you have?” The fact you are just dying to believe something is not hard evidence — except perhaps about your state of mind.

Why do we conduct trials if not to find out what happened? This is not a scandal covered up by the military and unearthed by the media. The military reported this months ago, and the media only went ballistic after photos became available.

The military hasn’t even delayed a court-martial. In the civilian world, Scott Peterson was arrested before all this happened in Iraq and his trial still has not yet begun, while the courts-martial of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq soldiers have begun.

Let us return to the costs for a moment.

The cost of high officials spending their time on prison administration in Iraq is not spending that time on other things on which the survival of this country may depend. Time spent covering your backside is time not spent doing your job.

But there is yet another cost.

You cannot replace high government officials every time the media go ballistic and expect high-quality people, with many other alternatives, to serve in government, if to do so risks being dumped in disgrace because hyenas are howling.

Politicians’ short time horizon in an election year means the long-run availability of scarce talent is likely to get very little attention from the pols. That is all the more reason the rest of us need to keep our heads despite all the shrill rhetoric.

We have to think about the future of this country — not only our own future but the future of our children and grandchildren.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Part I: Inquiring horde

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