Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. guards is not only criminal, it is a harsh example of a “wound of moral compromise” all too common in war.

Let me quote from a column I wrote Sept. 25, 2001, two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11:

“Every war is complex, chaotic, physically and emotionally debilitating and — no matter how right the cause — at some point morally compromised. This war (i.e., The War on Terror) will be no different. America’s biggest strategic challenge will be one as old as war itself: maintaining the will to persevere and pursue the task of victory despite understandable fears, gnawing doubts, the occasional coward and inevitable body bags.” This is a critical frame for understanding the mistakes at Abu Ghraib, the consequences and the means of correction.

Courts will ultimately assess blame then mete out punishments for those who engaged in or permitted the demeaning and sadistic behavior. Reports leaked to the press mention assault on detainees, indecent sexual acts and insistent brutality. The analyses I have read emphasize that other American soldiers, appalled at what they had witnessed, reported the crimes.

In the long run, the public demonstration of American justice — the arc of investigation, trial and punishment — will provide a lesson in democracy. It goes without saying Saddam’s jailers would never confront a judge for similar outrages. The process will underscore the difference between the democratic rule of law and a dictator’s rule by whim.

However, the long run isn’t here, but a hundred digital photos are, on front pages and a thousand Web sites, color shots of detainees being hurt and humiliated, camerawork with the smarminess of pornography.

The photos are an anti-American propagandist’s centerfold, and provide America-haters with a new Exhibit A to support their perpetual charges of American hypocrisy and decadence. They stir legitimate anger at a difficult time of transition in Iraq. They damage American military and political efforts.

But there is an odd silver-lining. America’s open society includes its military. U.S. military actions are subject to legal review. The American public’s revulsion is also a healthy indicator. Unlike Ba’athists who danced for Al Jazeera television after the murder and mutilation of four Americans in Fallujah, the American reaction is regret. The American message is, “We don’t rejoice, we don’t condone or excuse, we investigate and prosecute.”

Immediate candor, verifiable change in procedures and quick compensation of victims — that should be U.S. policy for addressing the crimes at Abu Ghraib.

Candor in the digital age means more than press conferences. Candor in the digital age means press tours of Abu Ghraib. Candor entails a comparison of current conditions there with those in October to December 2003 when the mistreatment occurred. Full candor — here’s where the bitter truth begins to seed a better future — also means a comparison of current conditions with those under Saddam’s regime.

Procedural changes at Abu Ghraib began in January 2004. One investigation apparently concluded military police there operated under an “ambiguous command relationship” with military intelligence. Vets know that’s particularly damning military jargon for lack of oversight and responsible leadership.

All prisons are hotbeds of discontent. Ask any civilian warden or guard. Add the dimensions of war and terrorism, and the challenges facing a prison commander become much more complex. However, they are not impossible. Training, discipline and a clear line of authority make the complexities manageable.

I have to wonder not only about the morals but the training of interrogators who allegedly encouraged brutality. Such ill treatment not only violates common decency and international law, it usually seeds rebellion. One source described the detainees at Abu Ghraib as “low level,” so the chances are slim they had time-critical information when they reached prison.

Some compensation is due. At a minimum the humiliated prisoners deserve a quick review of their cases and possibly monetary compensation. The message must be that prisoners, even those linked to Saddam’s crimes, have rights.

It will reinforce the justice of our cause.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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