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Abu Ghraib Torturers
It's Not Hard to Act Like an Animal When in the Company of Beasts

It's comforting to imagine that because I went to college and know some of the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land" I'm radically different from the asphyxiating Khmer or the machete-wielding Hutus. But those pasties of civility can't hide evidence that it only takes a sufficient mix of well-bred prejudice and inbred ideologies, of engorged resentments and whipped-up hatred, or even of patriotism run amok, to make killers of many of us. The Auschwitz officer who humiliated and gassed his share of Jews for the day then went home to his Schubert records and doting mistress at night could in another time and place have been a volunteer fireman, a kindly Rotarian or a moralizing columnist. It doesn't take much to be animals, especially in the company of beasts. It does take something of a hero to stand up to mass madness. Most of us prefer the convenience of following the herd, lacking which we do worse. We follow orders.

This isn't to diffuse responsibility, which is another way of relieving guilt (if everyone is to blame, then supposedly no one is to blame). But the notion that some nations are immune from committing atrocities because they happen to be civilized just doesn't wash. If anything, it is the civilized nations and, in particular, the Christian West that have the most to account for when it comes to inhumanity, especially when compared to the Muslim East over its entire history. As the historian Bernard Lewis points out in "What Went Wrong," his recent book on the Muslim world's compulsive backwardness in the last two centuries or so, "There is nothing in Islamic history to compare with the Spanish expulsion of Jews and Muslims, the Inquisition, the Auto da fe's, the wars of religion, not to speak of more recent crimes of commission and acquiescence," among which the Holocaust and the communist era's more equal-opportunity zeal for extermination.

The comparison could be narrowed to the Muslim East and the Americas. Until the surge of quasi-fascist Arab and Islamic regimes since the 1960s, nothing in Islamic history compared with the extent, the depth, the brutality -- in law, in practice and in popular complicity -- of 300 years of institutional slavery in America and another century of repressive segregation in the nation claiming, before irony was cool, to be a beacon of freedom to the world. So President Bush's curious statement last week that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of Americans "does not represent the America that I know" requires at least some qualification. He does have a point, in that the America of the last two generations has been a more pluralistically decent place than ever before, but mostly at home. The record abroad is more bloody. And the era of decency ended even at home when Bush hitched his entire world view to the yardstick of a war on terror in which he sets the rules, defines the enemy, judges the guilty and metes out punishment. One thing the yardstick doesn't measure is the abuse it invites.

So far as we know, there are no large-scale atrocities to speak of like those of 9/11 and its spin-offs. But Bush has bred a sense of vengeful payback that has set a tone of acceptably lawless behavior. Torture at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison is making news because it's on film. But the Justice Department's investigations have revealed torture and abuse of Arab or Muslim immigrants in federal prisons at home since 9/11. And, as anyone who still remembers the noon darkness of totalitarian methods, torture doesn't have to be physical to be effective, as the concentration camp for al-Qaida suspects at Guantanamo Bay attests. No official apologies there. The president's attitude speaks loudly. He is the police chief under whose command police brutality is implicitly condoned in the name of the mission. He has created the atmosphere and the circumstances where the law is what he says it is, where the enemy is subhuman, where ordinary men and women become beasts. So they have at Abu Ghraib and who knows where else.

The Arab world's angry reaction is morbidly hypocritical. There isn't a single Arab regime where prisons aren't houses of terror. But it's just as true that since 2001 Bush has "outsourced" terror suspects on U.S. planes to Arab prisons where, as The Washington Post reported in March 2002, "they can be subjected to interrogation tactics -- including torture and threats to families -- that are illegal in the United States." Ten months later in his State of the Union address, Bush confirmed: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

We have a president acting like a mob boss and half the nation still behind him. We shouldn't be surprised that his troops are acting like gleeful hit men, or that, with the Stars and Stripes waving above Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, this is indeed not the America that we knew.

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