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America's Self-Accusation

"Bush's division of the world in `good' and `evil' nations, terrorists and alliance partners, ultimately reflected an instinct-politician who didn't wrestle with complexities of international law beyond his own claim to power." The might makes right myth leads to unending fear.
America's Self-Accusation

The pictures of American torture strengthen the resistance against a transitional government in Baghdad. In Washington the Bush administration is in distress. Congress struggles against cover-ups and deception by the Pentagon. The US press rediscovers its critical voice.

By Michael Naumann

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT 21/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2004/21/01_zLeit_1_text_21.]

The war was not long won when Winston Churchill confident of victory in November 1943 reflected about later association with "worldwide outlaws", the political and military elite of the Nazis. Fifty or a hundred of them should "be killed without any transfer to a higher authority". This act of revenge broke down in the resistance of Roosevelt and Stalin. The former preferred the American legal tradition; the later wanted a show-trial. The accused of the Nuremberg trial were interrogated up to forty times. They were not tortured.

The devastations of the Second World War, above all the German war crimes, removed the thin civilization veneer over armed conflicts. The new version of the Geneva Convention from August 12, 1949 sought to restore this veneer. When asked his opinion about that convention, the American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he would leave the answer to his lawyers. He didn't have any regard for "quaint international babble".


Since the disclosure of the American torture scandals in Iraq, Pentagon lawyers have found a new job, emphasizing that the International Red Cross already detailed and discreetly announced the "abuses" in October 2003. "Our reports were worse than the photographs", the spokesperson of the Geneva organization explained.

Joschka Fischer who flew to Washington to explore the chances of a new Middle East strategy met politicians horrified by the dreadful photographs. These politicians focused more on America's present than the future. America's radiating self-confidence is damaged. The pornographic-sadistic photographs do not match the heroic image of its own professional army. The photographs from the Abu-Ghraib prison are certainly not evidence for the mission civilisatrice with which George W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq after the first reason for war, the removal of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, dissolved in thin air.

The political-moral debacle that is repeated in England could hardly be greater. In Iraq, the chaotic post-war time on June 30 threatens to change into a pre-war time. A legitimacy that was conceivable not long ago is lost to any American-appointed transitional government.

In Arab countries where tortures are routine and executions and stonings are public, the digital, electronically disseminated torture photos are regarded as documents of western hubris. The media transformation of this humiliation into a feeling of religious, ethnic and cultural superiority over "the West" is the work of Islamic fundamentalism. This superiority is revived in the age of mass communication with fresh icons of America's defeat accessible to everyone. The picture of the hooded man in electroshock hangs in the imaginary photo-gallery of Muslim tales of woe, a gallery that is always open - from the deaths in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon to that father with his son who fell into a Palestinian-Israeli crossfire. A general sacrifice myth grows rampantly out of the individual fates, a myth that continues with every suicide-assailant into a pan-Arabic master legend with its emotional secret of revenge. A civil Iraqi administration controlled by Americans has no chance against this emotion.

Revenge is the archaic motive of terrorism. Terrorism draws new strength from the torture photos and hides under the surface of the growing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. In the meantime, support of pro-western governments has become weaker than ever among their own citizens.

Revenge could also have been George W. Bush's unacknowledged motive when he charged his Secretary of Defense ten weeks after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 to prepare a war against Iraq. A cast-iron rhetoric of honesty prevailed in Washington at that time supplemented with the freedom ideals of American constitutional history. Bush's division of the world in "good" and "evil" nations, terrorists and alliance partners, ultimately reflected an instinct-politicians who didn't wrestle with subtleties of international law beyond his own claim to power.

He wanted to see Osama bin Laden "dead or alive, it's all the same to me". He received the necessary advice for his administration from a "higher Father", not his natural father, the president explained to the reporter Bob Woodward. God must be silent about the behavior of his soldiers and officials with the prisoners of Guantanamo or in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Attorney General answered a judge of the Supreme Court who wanted to know whether the government observed all the regulations against torture: "Trust the executive."

The armed spirit of the "war against terrorism" spoke here. Up until a few weeks ago, that spirit had paralyzed the tongues of most American journalists and the Congress. The cruel pictures from Baghdad have reactivated the American system of checks and balances. America's democratic self-correction begins with the gnawing question: "How could this happen?"

Unlike God's advice in the White House, the transformation of simple soldiers into criminals is not a mysterious process. Wars harden. Psychic insensitivity is an individual survival mechanism of all soldiers like submission to group pressure in military actions. The civilizing, disciplining restriction on killing confronts the individual soldier. This conformity also serves the self-defense of the troop. The incidents in the Abu-Ghraib prison have further increased the dangers to American soldiers in Iraq.

While the anger of the generals in the Pentagon concentrate on the civilian leadership around Donald Rumsfeld and his assistant Paul Wolfowitz who led a crusade without a peace- and "exit" strategy, the hearings of Congress and the investigations of the American media emphasize the diffuse military chains of command that ended in the misery of Afghanistan's and Iraq's prisoner camps. The reservists of the military police were not prepared for their hard task and their superiors were not apparently offende3d by the written order to "prepare" the captured Iraqis for interrogations by specialists of the military secret service with ominous methods.


Thirty-five years ago the young reporter Seymour Hirsch uncovered the massacre of My Lai in Vietnam. A company of American soldiers in a bloody frenzy killed over 600 persons. The same journalist has not published a secret and very critical Pentagon report on the cruel conditions in Iraqi prisons. The vehement public reaction to the scenes in the cells and to Hirsch's revelations shows the readiness of America's democratic system to stop and correct its errors. How far this will go depends on the outcome of the election in November.

The first American defendant, a 24-year old military policeman, faces a public American military court next week. He probably followed a command. Another command was over this command. Donald Rumsfeld is in distress and with him his president George W. Bush.

The same Winston Churchill who spoke in favor of a remote court in 1943 said in a quieter hour "Relating to crimes and criminals is the test of civilization for every country."

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