Topic: Government & Politics

Rumsfeld's Deadly Rationalization
(9/13/2004)

It's official: Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has adopted the ethical stance of conservative talk radio and some of the more Neanderthal Republicans. Speaking of the still festering scandal involving the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, Rummy recently said:

"Has it been harmful to our country? Yes. Is it something that has to be corrected? Yes. Does it rank up there with chopping off someone's head off on television? It doesn't."

Naively, perhaps, we expected better. This is not only a desperate mindset, but a damaging and irresponsible one that distorts the ethical principles involved and obscures the reason why Abu Ghraib is both important and devastating.

And it is both wrong and incorrect. Think about it this way: praying mantises bite the heads off their mates while they are copulating. It's brutal, but it is what praying mantises do. Let's hypothesize that a man accused of torturing and sexually abusing his sex partners were to "put things in perspective," (to quote Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, among others) by saying, "Hey, it was bad, but it's not as if I chewed their heads off!" Would you regard that as an astute debating point?

Terrorists blow up school buses with children in them; they level skyscrapers full of innocent people; they put poison gas in subway stations; they encourage 12 year olds to act as suicide bombers. Chopping off someone's head is no big deal for them, because it is consistent with their warped values…it's what they do. The act itself is shocking, but the fact that they are the ones performing the act isn't shocking at all, or shouldn't be. Were you expecting some terrorist Code of Conduct that declares head chopping off limits?

For the representatives of the United States to engage in the kind of cruelty (or "hijinks," in Rush Limbaugh's bizarre terminology) on display at Abu Ghraib is a much greater betrayal of American values than beheading is for terrorists…indeed, beheading is completely consistent with terrorist values. The United States could justify all sorts of terrible conduct if it adopted the standards of the brutal, the hateful, and the depraved of the world. Are those the standards we want to embrace?

America is not a place, or a nation, or even a population. It is a set of unique ideals that aim towards the realization of every human being's innate potential. America is values: freedom, self-determination, self-expression, empowerment, and the pursuit of happiness. This is what has always divided the United States from its more pragmatic neighbors and allies. It is an extraordinarily difficult set of values to live by in the jungle of international relations, so our nation has frequently fallen short of them or terrible miscalculated the best way to achieve them. The Iraq war itself was undertaken in pursuit and protection of those values, and whether this was one of the miscalculations is still open to debate. But no matter: living up to those challenging American values is the nation's perpetual challenge, and a disgraceful betrayal of them of the magnitude of the Lynnie England S & M Show must never be brushed aside with a fatuous and false comparison with the acts of terrorists.

Abu Ghraib was un-American, and Rumsfeld should accept his responsibility for allowing it to occur without attempting to minimize its significance. It wounded America, and those wounds will become a deadly case of ethical rot if our leaders use the brutality of brutes as the standard for outrage.

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