NEW YORK — Let’s get something straight. We hate anyone who would torture a prisoner of war. But we also hate getting old, paying taxes, and square dancing. The point is, some things just go with the territory. Soldiers who go off to fight in a war are not going to a Bar Mitzvah. They are ordinary people who are subjected to extraordinary pressures while separated from family, friends, the Saturday night wrestling in back of a pickup truck, and the structured life a civilized society provides. Without any life experience that could prepare them for what they will encounter, they live under constant or near constant threat of attack and the daily deaths or mutilations of friends and colleagues. Worse yet, they risk their lives to free a people who are more than just ungrateful — people who have turned on them, and now often seek to destroy them.
There never was a war where the participants, who are usually barely old enough to shave, on both sides, did not commit atrocities. Yes, it happened in the last great war by both the Germans and Americans, and for the Japanese this was “business as usual.” The difference between us and them is that we do not treat this as acceptable behavior, we do not condone it; we investigate, we make it public, and we punish. They celebrate it.
It is of singular importance that under Saddam Hussein, in that very same prison, Abu Ghraib, that is now being scrutinized by the American authorities, rape, murder, the cutting off of limbs, and whatever tortures the ingenuity of a highly technologically advanced society could devise were a routine daily occurrence. The whole world knew of this Arab-on-Arab torture. Yet not a peep. Now when a few individuals out of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have acted inappropriately, the Arab world is outraged.
IRONICALLY, IN THE ARAB world, torture is still practiced and enjoys an historical precedent dating back to, at least 608, when the Prophet’s favorite grandson had his head cut off in Iraq and sent first to Damascus and then to Egypt. Today, a thief in Arab countries worries about forfeiting his hand as well as his freedom, and a wife who is romantic with the wrong man has more to worry about than being sued in a divorce case. The message is clear: one standard of conduct for Arabs, another for Americans.
If Arabs enjoy the pleasure of a double standard, we claim no less a right. To be very clear (readers of the New York Times avert your gaze), if it is Arab discomfort as opposed to American young men and women being turned into chop meat, in our eyes it is no contest. It must be borne in mind that the abuse victims were all in cell block 1-A or 1-B, which basically means that there was evidence to believe that they were murderers, terrorists, or insurgents. If the new standards for their treatment now being put in place will prevent the obtaining of information that could have saved American lives, in our book, our politicians and military brass should have a lot more to answer for than the mistreatment of a few thugs.
If anyone questioned the necessity for our attacking Iraq the TV beheading of the 26-year-old businessman Nick Berg should have been an awakening experience. It should be clear to the world that what we are unwillingly faced with is a clash of cultures. It was not sought, it was thrust upon us on 9/11. Can any American in a modern world, where the furthest is but hours away from the nearest, feel safe where there is loosed upon the world a society where the cultural norm for a showing of dissatisfaction is the television beheading of an innocent person?
President Bush, in his address to Congress after 9/1, made the most important, and obvious but unspoken, policy declaration since the Monroe Doctrine: friend to our friend is our friend, friend to our enemy is our enemy. In the velocity of events in the modern world it cannot be otherwise.
PICTURE A WORLD IN which we did not take action. Of course, it would have been a more peaceful world today, and President Bush would have had an easier chance for re-election. But the same people who complain that our deficit will burden the next generation should apply the same thinking to the Iraq situation. If America had done nothing, Iraq would continue to try to shoot down our planes who were conducting fly-overs pursuant to a peace treaty. We could do either one of two things: let American planes be shot down and the pilots, if alive, subjected to Hussein-style Iraqi justice, or discontinue the flights. To allow the former would be criminal inaction by the people in Washington; in the latter case we would be humiliated before the Arab world and our timidity would be interpreted as license. If we wrote off the search for WMD, could any one this side of a lunatic asylum believe that Saddam Hussein, who has sought, and has previously used some of them (and who but for the Israelis’ destruction of the facility at Osirak would have already gone nuclear) would not, fueled by his own and other Arab wealth, eventually acquire all of them?
Americans should understand that self-flagellation only satiates a deranged individual. They should also take note of Lincoln’s observation that the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.