I am an attorney. Attorneys, as a professional group, have their well-chronicled failings, but the practice of law, if honestly and thoughtfully undertaken as an avocation or calling, rests on an honorable set of core beliefs. One of those core beliefs is that societies can and should be governed by fidelity to principle, rather than by the capricious exercise of naked power. Another is that disputes about how and when to deploy the fearsome apparatus of the modern state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, are best resolved through a reasoned discursive process whose outcomes people of decency will feel able to respect, because those outcomes are the legally prescribed product of essentially fair and rational procedures. Still another is that all of law’s subjects, of whatever color or creed, are always to be treated with some measure of dignity and respect.
Last year, this nation sent men and women to fight under its flag for the loudly proclaimed purpose of toppling a cruel, despotic, and lawless regime, with the hope of making way for a more democratic and civilized form of governance in its place. Those who led us on that mission were supremely confident of their ability to accomplish that task, and asked us to repose that same supreme confidence in them. America was portrayed, to citizens of our own nation and to citizens of the world, as the last best hope for securing the blessings of ordered liberty on behalf of the oppressed. Our nation’s hand, it was said, would wield the sword of justice, bringing democracy and freedom to the downtrodden Iraqi people, who had lived in slavery and terror for so long.
No one doubts the sincerity or the dedication of the men and women who were sent on that mission. Whether or not they believed in this war, they have answered their nation’s call, and answered it bravely, the way soldiers are supposed to do. We know that most have shown honor and courage, working tirelessly and nobly to help a faraway people enjoy some prospect of a better life. Nothing can ever detract from their honorable deeds.
But it now transpires that there were also cowards in their midst, and very probably, in their command. Whatever further grisly news the morrow may bring, this much is clear: our would-be liberators brought new oppressors with them – new petty despots, new torturers, new evildoers. It may be, as some apologists for these crimes are already suggesting, that by way of inflicting pure physical agony, these novices did not remotely rival the sadism displayed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. But the sheer ingenuity that some Americans have now shown, in gleefully stripping away every shred of their victims’ humanity and dignity, connotes an enthusiasm for the project that can only be regarded as intolerable and depraved.
Let us be clear on what the primary problem here would be. It is a grave concern, to be sure, that the welfare of American servicemen and women, in Iraq and around the world, has now been placed in terrifying and undeserved peril, should they be imprisoned by captors who model their custodial practices on American behavior. It is a grave concern, as well, that in the eyes of much of the Islamic world, Americans are now no better than the terrorists and petty warlords whose methods Americans are wont so loudly to deplore. And it is legitimately the source of deep anger, that anyone should have been so monumentally stupid as to offer this signal inspiration for further acts of terror against America and its allies.
But the primary issue here is a moral one. The primary issue is that a sickening wrong has been done to our fellow human beings, and a nauseating affront to human rights committed. The concepts of fair treatment, of due process, of the law’s protection, of deliberative justice – these have been casually treated, by persons purporting to act under our country’s banner, as hard-earned luxuries to which Westerners are uniquely entitled, whereas Iraqi human rights, like the Iraqi prisoners themselves, have been treated with derision and contempt.
These acts fall beyond excuse. We know that the individual soldiers who inflicted these cruelties are likely to be tried and punished. What is far less certain, at this hour, is how much further the workings of justice will extend. Let it be said now, therefore, that no one who planned these crimes, or incited them, or knew of them and looked the other way, or suspected them but failed to act when he could have acted – no one, high or low, who knew or should have known of these events, and who nevertheless suffered them to occur, or who strove to conceal them once they had already occurred, can be permitted to participate, for one second longer, in the governance or defense of our country. This is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of good and evil, right and wrong. It is a matter of what we stand for.
I am an attorney, and I say that whoever had a hand in this, or condoned it, or let pass an opportunity to halt it, must go. Either that, or we must withdraw any claim to stand for the rule of law.