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5/14/04 9:27 PM
Copyright 2004 David C. Loebig

Iraq Prison Abuses Getting Too Much Attention

The apparent abuse of Iraqis at the hands of our soldiers is at a minimum disappointing. That it may be "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse" or “tantamount to torture” is a major letdown and a black mark on America for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, given the scale of the transgressions it’s getting too much coverage by the media and our politicians.

I don’t want to minimize it. It’s bad enough that we unleashed the sufferings of war to obtain our goals. It’s horrible that we also inflicted needless suffering. (And the correct word is “we.” If our claim is that “we” liberated Iraq, we should also acknowledge that “we” perpetrated the abuse.)

We can also say that it is horrible that any crime is committed anywhere. So what is it about these crimes that warrants so much focus? It’s the fact that the bad public relations is a set back for our policies. Coverage of the bad public relations is itself part of the bad public relations, and it feeds back on itself to become a story that’s receiving more coverage than it deserves.

It appears that crimes were committed. Those involved should be prosecuted, reprimanded or disciplined, and the press should cover it. But each year the military prosecutes soldiers and sailors for other violent crimes around the world, and the press and the politicians mostly ignore them. And nobody expects the president or the secretary of defense to know the details of each case.

Like I said, the press should cover it, but the military is apparently handling it. Perhaps it’s not as fast as some may like, and anybody is free to say so, but someone should acknowledge that the abuse was already stopped when the story broke, and the Department of Defense was already investigating. The system is working, yet the persistent coverage would make you think otherwise.

Even with all the hearings and media noise, we’re missing a lesson, a reminder of a fundamental rule of the human condition: Power corrupts. The perpetrators got caught up in the power they had over others, and they succumbed to it.

We Americans have no particular immunity to the temptations of power. We should take the whole scandal as a reminder of a humbling truth best articulated by James Russell Lowell: “Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: that you are dreadfully like other people.”

While America rightfully claims some high ground, we should realize that it is our system of openness, accountability and free elections that deserves the credit. We, as individuals and in groups, are just as corruptible as anybody else.

So as we pursue war on terrorism, we should be mindful of the conditions we’re creating. We are giving our police and our soldiers permission to exercise power. Sometimes it is the raw power of greater violence. Sometimes it is the legal power of investigation. Invariably it will corrupt. Expect more abuses in the coming years. It is our open system that will keep them in check.

One final point that’s been overlooked is that the whole scandal may work for us. The racists who oppose all Americans just for being American are now crying out about the human rights abuses we perpetrated.

Their communities and societies have social dynamics, and their credibility within their group will slide when they later commit crimes or terrorist acts. This won’t wholly undermine their cause, but they have their own complex social order. Their words may work against them. Let’s hope so.

I’ve been proud of the discipline our military has shown. They have dutifully accepted their missions, reasonable or otherwise, and have made us proud. Unfortunately, some of our soldiers did some horrible things. Our laws, the military and our free press are handling it. Enough said.

Dave Loebig writes and banters out of the Tampa, Fla. area. You can banter with him at


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