Friday, March 10, 2006

Political Science

We are turning Abu Ghraib over the the Iraqi government. The prison where Saddam Hussein tortured Iraqis, and where American personnel abused them.

Notice anythning about that sentence?

To hear NPR tell it, Saddam Hussein personally tortured, executed, or gave orders to abuse, every prisoner in Abu Ghraib when he held the reins of power. But under American control, it wasn't George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld who "abused" prisoners: it was "American personnel." According to the Washington Post, Americans "abused" prisoners, but Hussein conducted "torture." Abuse" and "sexual humiliation" seem be the terms of choice when speaking of American activity there. The Chicago Tribune prefers that distinction, as does the New York Times Reuters article. Saddam Hussein tortured; we abused.

Saddam Hussein, of course, was a tyrant, a dictator, a bloodthirsty monster who oversaw every aspect of his governments activity. People didn't act under Hussein in accord with an environment of license and brutality; it was far worse. Hussein himself directed tortures and executions. That, at least, is the picture in American media. One can be forgiven for thinking Hussein never slept, and never stopped overseeing governmental operations long enough to go to the bathroom; if we ever thought about it that seriously. In American media reports, his name is always mentioned, and it is always inferred that he personally ordered, if not casually condoned, horrors unspeakable. "Torture" is a very loaded word. We still don't like to associate it with Americans. Even with Lynndie England, and Abu Ghraib.

"Abuse" and "sexual humiliation" are somehow easier to swallow. They are, in some way, gentler euphemisms. "Abuse" is bad; but "torture" is horrible. It's medieval. It's what "they" do, not what we do. And since we are an enlightened people living in a democracy which makes us the sovereign, we prefer the "Enron defense" to responsibility. How could we know such horrible things were being done by our employees? How could we be responsible?

And so George W. Bush, the champion of the "unitary presidency," the advocate, through his Vice President, of reclaiming Presidential powers supposedly loast after the Watergate scandal, the President who forces the Senate Intelligence Committee to do acquiesce to his spying on Americans, is not responsible for "abuse" and "sexual humiliation" at Abu Ghraib. He's Ken Lay. How could he know what was going on? He's just the President. He's not responsible.

Harry Truman once famously had a sign on his desk that read: "The Buck Stops Here!" As Americans, we used to be proud of that. But maybe that's because Harry took credit for ending World War II with the horrific bombing of Japan with nuclear weapons; not once, but twice. Or because he took credit for nationalizing the railroads, back when the railroads meant something. Whatever the reason, the buck no longer stops anymore. It passes along endlessly, until it reaches the lowest level, the level where no retaliation is possible, the level where we can push blame down to the "bad apples" and they can't push it back. The level where none of "us" are responsible, and "they" are.

We are all Ken Lay.

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