Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

No Preservatives: Abu Ghraib is the fruit our culture has spent a generation preparing

Joel Belz

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Nothing, of course, in all the dismay and furor over the Iraqi prison abuses, is so depressing as the thought that we did this to ourselves. If Baathist insurgents had wiped out 50 of our best-trained troops in a single action, or if Hamas terrorists had sneaked into Iraq to destroy one of our most secure units, the emotional damage would be huge.

But to know that our principal objectives have now at least been delayed, and that the course of the whole war has been changed almost certainly not for the good--and that all this has come about because of the gratuitous behavior of a relatively small number of our own people--well, that sits in the pits of our stomachs like a two-ton rock.

When we protest that what the Americans have done, even at its worst, isn't as vicious or as horrifying as what the radical Muslims did earlier, our heart isn't quite in the protest. Our own people still did it, and we know that in a sense our lips should be zipped.

And we desperately want to say that what these Americans have done isn't typical of America--that it's an aberration, a terrible exception to what we know about our country. We want to argue that the grisly photos are surreal and unrelated to the people we know.

Our problem is that here too we aren't quite sure of our ground. On at least two fronts, some chickens are coming home to roost. They are chickens we have been hatching for a generation and more.

The first front is that we've been building a culture that asserts its right to goof around playfully with the kinds of things that, when seen now in the context of the Iraqi jails, horrify us. The violence, the sexual slavery, the domination, the bizarre--all these are the stock in trade of America's music industry, of cable TV, of video stores, of the internet, and of newsstands in grocery stores. We like to kid ourselves into thinking that we're just playing games with all this stuff. But then when a few young but morally rudderless Americans are transported halfway around the world, made to think they are on the side of virtue, and asked suddenly to act responsibly, we're surprised that they can't.

Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon he directs are roundly criticized for not adequately training the personnel in charge of the Iraqi prisons. It is a fair charge. But it's worth asking whether it's possible in a few short months of preparation for a war like the one in Iraq to reshape someone's whole mindset. These young people are the product of their culture--and that culture is shaped a lot more by the influences listed above than by the gallant values of Western civilization we'd like to pretend are still dominant.

The second front is less blurry. It has to do with the role of women in the military. What boneheaded decision-making did it take to fall back on the politically correct policy of assigning any young woman--even one who is discreet and wise--the task of serving as a guard in a prison holding hundreds of Islamic men? (Do we even do this in America?) For many in the Islamic world, the absolute worst image to come from the Iraqi prisons was not some picture suggesting physical torture. The absolute worst was of a young woman holding a leash fastened to the neck of a naked and prostrate male prisoner. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted: "One could not have designed a more symbolic representation of the Islamist warning about where Western freedom ultimately leads."

Someone might counter that any self-respecting young woman, trained in American values, should have had the sense never to pose for such a photo. And such an argument is right. But so is the argument that any self-respecting civilization should have the sense never to allow its young women to be anywhere near a setting where such a photo op might be suggested.

There is room to criticize Mr. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. But they are not primarily responsible for the coarsening of a culture that took place for a generation and more leading up to the unveiling of such wicked acts. Listen carefully just now. It's a bit too easy to charge all this to the account of those immediately responsible for the policies of the Iraq war. It's more to the point right now to remember who has been opening the doors to all this cultural poison in the first place.

Read this article on the World Magazine website. Reprinted with permission.

Posted 5/15/04

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