Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The End of the Age of Enlightenment?

Everyone is talking about Abu Ghraib prison, and the abuses that have occurred during detention of Iraqis. My gut feeling is that what we know right now is only the tip of the iceberg. Like many such horror stories from past wars, it will take years for the full story to be told.

Driving into work today for the first time in two weeks, I listened to NPR reporting on reaction of Iraqis and the world at large. It comes as no surprise to me that world reaction has been extremely negative. It also comes as no surprise to me that, despite the administration's feigned "horror", there doesn't appear to be a real sense of outrage that Americans could actually perpetrate such acts.

I want to put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If pictures such as those that have been published over the last week depicted, say, Israelis abusing Palestinian prisoners (like that has never happened...), U.S. public support of Ariel Sharon's policies would drop off the map. There would be an unprecedented public outcry for censure and bringing the perpetrators to justice. I don't sense this in the U.S.

According to reports, a handful of military personnel (enlisted personnel, I presume) face potential court martial charges over the abuses. Another handful of "supervising officers" have received the dreaded Letter of Reprimand -- slaps on the wrist and little more, other than the dead ending of military careers. And what's most disturbing to me is what I'll call "heartland reaction" -- folks in the U.S. horrified by the pictures, but only to the extent of questioning why the pictures needed to be shown in the first place. The attitude seems to be "war is hell", and sometimes shit happens.

Here's the problem. This isn't a case of shit happening to warriors. Many of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison are there as a result of either guilt by association or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, the heartland reaction seems to be to hang 'em all, and let Allah sort them out.

Bloodlust by combatants in wartime is nothing new. History books are replete with tales of savagery during the prosecution of wars. Perhaps we have simply deluded ourselves that, as a species, we entered an age of enlightenment many years ago. A basic, philosophical recognition of natural law (21st century translation: human rights) took place way back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Montesquieu and Voltaire, among others, grounded their philosophy of enlightenment in a fundamental acknowledgement of basic human rights.

Juan Cole sums it up nicely today:
There simply is no logical or ethical comparison between the killings and desecrations of the four private commandos at Fallujah by a mixture of guerrillas and mobs, and the systematic torture of Prisoners of War by a democratic country.

Any equivalence would suggest that the United States military is not, and cannot be expected to be, better than an enraged mob in a small occupied city in Iraq's western desert. What was done to the commandos was horrible, and it was a crime by civilians and irregulars who should be arrested and punished.

The United States is a government, not a mob. As such, it has entered into treaty relations and made commitments to international law. It is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, which govern how prisoners are to be treated. The United States army violated the Geneva Conventions when it tortured Iraqi prisoners of war. Period. It was a series of serious crimes not by isolated civilians but by agents of the US government. Crimes of states are always more serious than crimes of individuals, because states are organized collective institutions upon which civilization depends. There is no excuse for it, least of all that sometimes town mobs have behaved worse.
When it comes to wartime bloodlust, 2004 is no different than 1969, or 1943, or 1917 or 1863 or 1777. I suppose what is most disconcerting is that, in the age of instant media, our horror is registered in realtime rather than over months or years. You would think that instant media would have brought Voltaire's vision of social accountability of all nation-states closer to reality.

He'd probably be very depressed to find out he was all wrong.