How the US lost its moral superiority?
The depths to which US morality has succumbed to because of the prisoner abuse scandal.
by Adnan Gill
Late last April, a CBS' “60 Minutes II” broadcast of nauseating and humiliating pictures taken at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison of torture and inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the American soldiers shook the Bush administration to its core. An administration, which thought 9/11 investigations during the election year was its worst nightmare come true, was totally blindsided and caught like a deer in the headlights by the scandal of unparalleled proportions.
For the first time in memorable history not only the American administration, but the whole nation found itself at the receiving end of what appeared to be the whole world's stinging criticism, wrath and disgust. No sooner did the pictures of torture and abuse become public the battle lines were drawn. There were those that viewed the United States as a nation with imperialistic design, who felt their convictions were vindicated and then there were those, like Rush Limbaugh, who conspicuously tried to shrug off the fire storm by calling the prison torture “a college fraternity prank”. Whether Rush and Saddam were members of the same college fraternity is a debate for another time. One thing is for sure, the whole world is up in arms over the abuse and the moral superiority America enjoyed for generations is in grave danger of being lost for a long time. No matter whether America is targeted fairly or unfairly, we have to ask one question: how did we get ourselves into this mess?
In order to figure out how we got here, one does not have to go any further than the tragic day of 9/11. It was undoubtedly, a day of horror, shock and grief. Not since the Pearl Harbour attack has the nation felt utterly stunned, traumatized and vulnerable. That was the time when a small group from within the US administration - known as Neo-Conservatives (Neo-cons) - perhaps with the best intentions, but without any hesitation took over the reins of the US government. They asked the shocked nation, 'trust us', and promised to provide effective protection and safety, but in return demanded lack of oversight and transparency. Without giving a second thought to the future consequences, the traumatized nation, including the President and the Congress handed over America's reins to this small but cunning group of Neo-Cons. In the name of fighting terrorism these Neo-Cons made the defence department an 'all departments in one' with virtually unlimited administrative powers and hardly any checks and balances. This group practically started to run a parallel State Department, Justice Department, Homeland Security Department, CIA, FBI, and its very own prison system. Soon these Neo-Cons became immune to the concepts of checks and balances, and became a Maverick Department. Later on, the arrogance and the feeling of invincibility of this Maverick Department run by Neo-Cons will single handedly bring an embarrassment to the American nation that it has never experienced before.
Right off the bat, the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld announced to the world of setting up of an American prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, under the command of Major-General Geoffrey Miller. In the same breath he made another shocking announcement, that the Guantanamo prisoners - mostly from Afghanistan, Middle East, and Pakistan - will not be accorded Geneva Convention protections. His decision was based on the argument, since terrorists and the Taliban do not abide by the Geneva Convention rules and are not part of any recognized government; therefore, the US too will not abide by any such rules. It seems, at the time no one bothered to read the Geneva Convention - to which the United States is a signatory - and if anyone did, they did not raise their voice. Article 2 and Article 4 (especially Article 4.3. Source: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/91.htm ) of Geneva Convention clearly contradicted Mr. Secretary's misstatement. Had this violation of Geneva Convention been debated, protested or questioned at the time, today the US might have saved itself from losing the moral superiority it enjoyed for so many decades.
The second chance to save the US from the embarrassment was missed when the President and Congress bought Neo-Cons' delusional rhetoric of saving the world by waging a war against Iraq. Once again, the whole nation bought their extremist rhetoric without asking any questions about waging a war of choice and ended up bogged down in a war that was based on lies, false data, and broken promises.
The third opportunity to save America's prestige was missed when Mr. Secretary refused to provide the safety and security to the Iraqi public - another violation of Geneva Convention - by calling the lawlessness and looting in Iraq as “Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
Next opportunity to save America's face was lost when the Secretary Rumsfeld decided to bring Gen. Miller to Iraq. The General promised to “Gitmo-ize” the US military prison system.
The final opportunity to save America's honour was lost, when Secretary Rumsfeld and his fellow Neo-Cons failed to fulfil their constitutional duty of informing the President and Congress of abuses reported by the ICRC and even by the US Army Major General Antonio Taguba's investigation which found that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees” in Abu Ghraib.
It is ludicrous and inconsequential to even imagine using the American soldiers as scapegoats for the mistakes and lack of effective leadership of their civilian leaders. Because its the civilian leadership which time and time again set very bad examples and sent wrong messages down the chain of command through their arrogant and callous actions. The soldiers merely laid their lives on the line by following the orders of their misguided leaders.
Had there been no pictures or had it not been a presidential election year there is a strong possibility the prison abuse reports would have met the same fate of oblivion as many other reports did in the past. The abuse reports against the US had been rampant since the Afghan invasion, but they consistently fell on deaf-ears of the leadership. It turns out; many other ICRC and Human Rights Watch reports preceded Major General Antonio Taguba's report. These reports protested the unfettered access to the American military prisons and were consistently raising red flags to the US government regarding the human rights violations and prisoner abuses.
The administration did not only shun ICRC's reports, but it also shunned the scrutiny of other independent rights monitors like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The administration presumed that suspected agents of terrorism did not deserve prevailing legal protections, and it presumed that American interrogators could always tell a terrorist from an innocent bystander. These reports also protested the deaths of two detainees in the US custody in Afghanistan, which the medical examiners declared as “homicides”. Indeed, to this day, no one has been prosecuted for those two deaths. Accounts of former prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other military detention sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo itself suggests there has been systemic, and gratuitous brutality against people who in many cases are not guilty of any crimes.
While the majority of the world is busy gloating over catching the United States in its moment of weakness and publishing the gory details of abuses, the Americans themselves have also started to ask millions of questions like:
l Our government told us that by going to war with Iraq we will be saved from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but where are they?
l We were told Saddam was helping Al-Qaeda, but where is Al-Qaeda?
l We were told the road to Middle-East peace runs through Baghdad, but then why is Middle East burning all over?
l We were told the war will pay itself off from the revenues of Iraqi oil, but then why are we still spending more than a billion dollars per week in Iraq out of our pockets?
l We were told after the war, the prices at gas pumps would go down, but then why are we paying record high gas prices?
l We were told Iraqis will shower us with flowers for liberating them, but more than 770 of our soldiers have lost their lives from the shower of mortars. Where are the flowers?
l Neo-Cons gave us their word that once the thugs like Saddam will be caught the Iraqis will come out of fear and embrace us with open arms, but then why did they savagely murder four Americans and dragged their dead bodies through the streets of Fallujah?
l We were told those who brutally killed and dragged the bodies of four Americans will be swiftly brought to justice, but then why are the Marines still sitting at the outskirts of the city?
l We were told we will gift the Iraqis their first taste of democracy and freedom, but then what were our soldiers picturing the naked Iraqis for, or why did the soldiers pose for pictures as they rode an elderly naked Iraqi woman, or why did the soldiers rape women Iraqi prisoners?
l We were told we did not know anything about the prison abuses, but the ICRC claimed it sent several reports to the Ambassador Bremer and Secretary Powell. Why did both of them fail to inform the President and Congress about the ICRC reports?
l We were told the American military is so advanced, disciplined and streamlined that it could instantly track every single soldier around the globe, but then why we still do not know whose orders placed Col. Thomas M. Pappas in charge of prison policy where Brig Gen. Karpinski's MPs worked?
l We were told the US military actually broke the abuse news and started the investigation, but then why did Gen. Myers and the Secretary Rumsfeld wait for months to read General Taguba's report over the prison abuse? Even worst, why did the highest military and civilian leaders conveniently forget to read reports after reports about the alleged gross violations of the Geneva Convention?
l We were told it's an act of few bad apples but then why did General Taguba's report suggest the abuses to be widespread, “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal”?
lWe were told yes there were probably some abuses but at least we did not kill people in cold blood like Saddam used to, but then why do journalist like Seymour Hersh (New Yorker) tell the stories of US investigators dumping off bodies after beating detainees to death?
l We were told we would punish those responsible for it, but then why only few handful low ranking reservists are being court-marshalled, while we even do not know who ordered them?
l We are told by the political leaders like Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to be “outraged by the outrage” as he doesn't think the Iraqis deserve protection of Geneva Convention, because they were not detained for traffic tickets, but then why the NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Red Cross believe over 70-90% detainees in American military prisons are innocent?
l We are told that our military has no better friend in Washington than the Bush administration, but then why did people like the Under Secretary of Defence Stephen Cambone, tried their best to upstage Gen. Taguba during the senate hearing?
Unfortunately, the list of questions, broken promises and illusions is so long that one would have to write a book over it.
On the other hand, impulsively the disappointed world is demanding the ouster of the Neo-Cons from the offices of American government, but now is not the time to oust the Neo-Cons for eternally embarrassing the United States. Now is the time to demand they follow Secretary Powell's 'pottery barn rule' and insist they clean up their mess under the strict scrutiny of the US Congress, media and the human rights organizations. The time to call foul was when the Neo-Cons announced to the world of their intentions not to abide by the international laws.
The Neo-Cons did their best to keep the abuse hidden and failed to do their constitutional duty by not taking their president or Congress into confidence. Commonsense demands a thorough investigation and accountability of them for violating their constitutional duty. But the tragedy is the Neo-Cons still neither admit their faults, nor have their actions shown any remorse for embarrassing their nation. “My impression,” Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon, “is that what has been charged so far is abuse, which is different from torture. Just a minute, I don't know if the, it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore, I'm not going to address the 'torture' word.”
There is still time to salvage whatever is left of the American moral authority. President Bush can still demonstrate the American commitment in dealing with the detainees in a decent and humane fashion, and according to international laws.
In order to restore America's severely tainted image, and without severely handicapping the American soldiers from doing their duty, the President could take the following steps:
First. In an expedient manner America has to publicly announce to the world, who ordered what?
Second. America needs to announce - in no ambiguous terms - to the world its unconditional and absolute intent of following the international law and its respect for human rights.
Third. America has to publish all of human rights organizations' reports over the abuses and the steps taken by the US to address their recommendations.
Fourth. Instantly abolish all of 'no go' areas in American military detention centres for the human rights organizations in order to assure the transparency and fairness.
Fifth. Train whole American military in clear words what is covered under international laws and human rights treaties, so they would know exactly what they can or more importantly cannot do?
Sixth. Apologize in no uncertain words to the victims and their families, and handsomely pay compensations for their hardship.
Seventh. America should stay in Iraq till it stabilizes the country politically and economically, so it doesn't fracture into multiple states. Till then US has to provide physical and economical security and safety.
Finally. The Neo-Cons and their allies in Congress should stop trying to evade responsibility by accusing those who want to ask tough questions by accusing them of being disloyal to the troops and the war effort.
Thomas Friedman (of the New York Times) concluded the tragedy with wise and enlightening words: “We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world.”
More articles by Adnan Gill