We're losing the moral high ground
From an e-mail circulated by Larry Spalding, Florida
Legislative Director for the ACLU of Florida, posted here with his
I attended two interesting meetings this week. One had a
predominantly liberal audience, while the other was exclusively conservative
- except for me. I was undercover. Actually I was invited by a conservative
friend and enjoyed myself but I was careful to stay away from discussing
politics at the dinner table.
But politics, particularly the deteriorating situation in
Iraq, was the topic of critical interest almost every place I went during
the week. Liberals, rather than gloating over the president's falling
approval rating, seemed genuinely distressed by the daily news reports of
torture at the hands of US soldiers, the death of innocent civilians, and
the accidental bombing of a wedding party in northern Iraq. How do we
extricate ourselves from this mess? Conservatives too exhibited discomfort
over the news from Iraq but, for the most part, they continue to rally round
the president. There was, however, one local indication that there are
cracks beginning to form in the conservative wall.
A prominent local Republican, admittedly a moderate
transplant from the Midwest, told me: "That's it! I've had enough. I'm fed
up with justifying the war in Iraq to skeptical friends, family and
acquaintances. I cannot bear watching good arguments for the intervention
shrivel before my eyes. And most of all, I'm livid that the moral case I
have been making has been utterly undermined by the actions of our own
troops." I sympathize with my friend's lament.
We, as Americans, cannot simply console ourselves that
Saddam's torture was worse than our torture. Of course it was, but that does
not make ours less repulsive. We did not go in to liberate the Iraqis on the
basis that we would electrocute them a little less painfully than the
previous lot. We went in to establish human rights and the rule of law, or
so I thought.
And what have we done instead? Killed, beaten or mortally shamed hundreds of
Iraqis, many of them innocent. Even if they were all guilty, sexual assault
and humiliation are not in the penal code of any civilized Western nation,
certainly not the United States of America.
And if those pictures shocked us in America, just think
what effect they must have had in the Arab world. What could better endorse
the Muslim view of the West as morally corrupt and decadent than that
pyramid of naked male bodies gloated over by a grinning woman?
We are told that there is worse still to come by Donald
Rumsfeld, purveyor of Western values to the Middle East and the man who
never got round to reading his own general's report on prisoner abuse
because it was "too long."
I always thought the war was a mistake. Nonetheless, for a
time, I was taken in by the more idealistic of the neo-cons who claimed that
military action could cut a swath of democracy through a brutally autocratic
region. Well, maybe it could have done. But not while the two men at the
very top -- Bush and Rumsfeld -- had already shown their disregard for
prisoners' rights by setting up Guantanamo Bay. Do not want to be bound by
the US Constitution or to abide by those inconvenient Geneva Conventions?
Fine. Pretend you are in Cuba instead.
With that example, it is not surprising that American
soldiers on the ground thought they could get away, literally, with murder.
These "terrorists" had already been deemed lesser human beings by their
And those superiors tacitly endorsed what was going on by
taking little action even when they knew what was happening. The Red Cross
started complaining to US officials about prisoner abuse more than 14 months
ago, but most of the complaints went unheeded. Nor, it seems, was the
torture an aberration. The report says that these abuses "went beyond
exceptional cases." This was, apparently, "standard operating procedure."
Inexperienced young soldiers, traumatized by their
comrades' death, will always be tempted to seek revenge. They will refrain
from doing so only if their commanding officers are adamant that such
behavior will not be tolerated. This message seems not to have reached
Lynndie England and her crew.
But it categorically should have. Of all wars, this was
the one in which our side had to behave absolutely properly. Unlike the
first Gulf War, this was a conflict that was deeply contentious. Our moral
high ground was already disputed even before our soldiers decided to hurl
themselves off it.
And if we now know of the torture that should never have
existed, where on earth are the weapons of mass destruction that were the
original justification for this war? "Believe me," said George W. Bush
before the invasion, "once we get our people in there, you will see what
Saddam's been up to."
Most Americans wanted to believe him. And we waited. And
waited. And conservatives counseled patience to their fretful liberal
friends. Iraq is huge, they reminded us. Think how hard it would be to find
a small truck of anthrax. But we are still waiting -- and it is more than a
year now since George W. Bush declared the war was won.
Maybe Saddam sent his weapons to Syria before the
conflict. Maybe he destroyed them. But you would think, by now, that we
would have discovered what happened to them. Enough money has been offered
to scientists, enough experts in the Iraq Survey Group have combed the
country. And what has turned up? Nothing.
I do not dispute that President Bush genuinely believed in
their existence before he sent this nation to war. All the intelligence
agencies were telling him that Iraq still had WMDs. He did not cynically
mislead the nation, but he might have read the intelligence reports, hedged
as they always are with caveats, through a more skeptical lens. He wanted to
go to war and he heard what he wanted to hear.
Saddam also brought the war upon himself by failing to
account for the weapons that he used to have, in breach of UN resolutions.
But the end result is that we invaded a nation, at great cost to human life,
that was little threat either to its neighbors or to us.
So supporters of the war, like my conservative friends,
are left only with the morally threadbare argument of ends and means. They,
as do I, passionately hope that Iraq ends up a better place. They, as do I,
pray that democracy takes root there, that the country does not fragment,
that al-Qaeda does not find the nation as friendly a base for its operations
as Afghanistan used to be and may well become again. Obviously we cannot
pull out now, at least not without an exit strategy which we seem to lack.
The US started this war, so we must finish it. We must do our best to bring
peace and democracy to Iraq. We may achieve it -- or, more likely, we may
not. But even if we do, I shall continue to believe that President Bush sent
this nation to war on unreliable intelligence, and that his administration
has conducted its aftermath in a manner that casts shame on America and the
values we profess to represent.
And is it not usually dictatorships, rather than
democracies, which like to claim that the end justifies the means?