Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Did ABC go too far? (Abu Ghraib)

I recently received a forwarded email from someone I care about that contained an editorial from the National Review that decried ABC’s decision to air the photos from Abu Ghraib.

I normally do not comment on emails like these that I receive, but in this case, I felt compelled. I had a few issues with the claims made in this article. I'm not a National Review reader, mainly because I find Rich Lowry and staffers like him to be prone to over-generalization and partisanship in their reportage.

But my main disagreement with this particular article resides with the base premise. Point of fact, I cannot bring myself to criticize ABC for drawing attention to this story.

The article argued that investigations were already underway, and had been since January. In fact, the very evidence presented in the article about the investigations underway are the pieces of the puzzle that make me the most uncomfortable.

The fact that an investigation was launched in January of this year, but had seemingly stalled at Donald Rumsfeld's desk until now, is not a positive element to this story. On Friday, the secretary of defense testified before Congress that in all these months he himself had never laid eyes on the photographs, and as a result, did not fully comprehend the scope of the infractions.

I understand that the political ramifications of his testimony (that he may have been trying to save his job), but his explanation to Congress was that the reports he received did not lead him to believe the events were as terrible as the photos revealed.

If ABC had not aired the photographs, we (the citizenry and the members of Congress, and presumably Mr. Rumsfeld himself, if his testimony is to be taken at face value) would still know little to nothing of these events, nor would any further action likely have been taken. The plight of these people would still be contained in a file on Mr. Rumsfeld's desk (or in a drawer somewhere), and justice for these people would be no closer to reality.

I think the photos needed to be aired. We are a democracy built on the freedom of expression, and we have a long history of commissioning the news media to serve as an unofficial fourth branch in the checks and balances process to ensure our motives are pure and our actions honorable. In fact, American historians have argued that this tradition goes back to the colonial press reporting of British infractions against Americans, which allowed public outrage to build up to the point that the American Revolution occurred.

As a Christian, I believe we should be the first to admit our shortcomings and ask for forgiveness. And particularly from our enemies.

I was also a little concerned about the sweeping scope of statements like “Lost is the fact that in America torturers get punished, while in the Arab world they get promotions.”

First of all, the first clause is disturbing. Who remembers the scandal of the reported abuses at Guantanamo Bay? Here was an example of a story about the American mistreatment of Arabs reported without pictures. All of the guards involved are reportedly still serving in our military and were merely reprimanded and transferred. And no one above those who actually committed the acts was punished, even though it seems the same intelligence forces being indicted in the current scandal were the same forces involved in the Guantanamo Bay infractions.

In an article in this morning's New York Times, Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, when asked whether he had inquired about the applicability of the Geneva Convention to the directions to the guardsmen said:

"I didn't have to," Mr. Cambone replied. "We had been through a process in which we understood what those limits were with respect to Iraq, and what those were with respect to Guantanamo."

Another story in this morning's Times featured an Afghan who gave his testimony of abuse at the hands of Americans. The NYT also ran an editorial citing evidence that these abuses may be much more systematic and widespread than is generally known.

Do we punish those who torture?

Second, the Arab world is a big place. And of all the Arabs and Arab Americans in my social circle (and there are perhaps a dozen), not one has ever said to me that torture should go unpunished or that there is no justice in “their world.” Extremists are marginalized in ‘their world” just as they are in “our world.”

Finally, even if one segments the world into an “Arab world” and an “American world” (a dangerous view of our globe, in my opinion), it follows that the very distinctions that define each culture should be defended. If torture is rewarded in “their world” and punished in “our world,” what does it say to “them” when we conceal the evidence of torture? Doesn’t that make “us” seem more like “them”?

A major portion of the rhetoric we've used in the post-WMD justification for our war with Iraq has been that the regime we were deposing was guilty of atrocities without accountability from the citizenry. I believe that we have an obligation to show these people that our way of life is different, that there can be justice when mistakes are made.

Hiding the evidence of these events in government reports in the hope that no one would notice does not seem to be a good strategy for convincing the Iraqi people (and others in that region) that we are a just and noble people. If anything, such tactics would seem to suggest to them that our way of life differs from the last regime's only in respect to who it is that is controlling the information flow.

If we ever want Iraq to develop into a nation of honesty and integrity, we must go out of our way to demonstrate these characteristics of our society to them. Even when it makes us look bad (perhaps PARTICULARLY then).

How better for them to learn what our values are and how we live out our values in honest and open ways?


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