Why Abu Ghraib sickens

It’s not every day that I quote the National Review, except when finding something unpalatable. Yet here is William F. Buckley pointing out why Abu Ghraib is worse than Mai Lai:

Seeking relief from the special hideousness of the Abu Ghraib scene, some commentators thought back to My Lai. It could only be said about that black day in Vietnam in 1968, in search of an explanation this side of concluding that American soldiers are mass killers, that some of the men who engaged in the massacre did what they did under the impulse of hot pursuit. You are waging the war, there are snipers and other hidden assailants, and you find yourself authorizing your men to use their machine guns to just mow everybody down %u2014 one way to do it. In Iraq there seems to have been nothing there in the sense of dodging bullets and returning fire. It seemed sheer sadism, pleasure taken from torture.

It’s not simply a question of viciousness: there can be little doubt that more vicious acts have been carried out during the war by both sides. There is something in the process of police officers (which, despite the military nature of the prison, these were) exploiting their position of authority and power for personal gain. The smiles on the faces of the jailors, the enjoyment of the pain and humiliation of others, is an evil that all of us fear we might one day see in ourselves. As much as all of us want to distance ourselves from these images, I think we need to consider why they are so repugnant to us, no matter which end of the political spectrum we stand. As tempting as it is to say “we’ve taken care of these anomalies,” I think we need to think of this as a symptom of something much larger, and think about how we can avoid the arogance of authority.

I recently heard the conclusion of Edward R. Murrow’s report on Senator Joe McCarthy. I think it applies just as easily when it comes to members of the current administration:

We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it–and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Good night, and good luck.

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