“Sorry’s” hollow ring

Thursday, May 13th, 2004

A picture may turn out to be worth, oh, $87 billion.

Pick your favorite. A naked Iraqi in a dog collar, a hooded guy on a box wired to electrodes, naked men in a heap, and then they get worse. The latest round features a prisoner, naked, of course, threatened by attack dogs; in the next shot, he’s on the ground, bleeding, with a GI pressing a knee into his back. And let’s not forget the corpses. Or the women.

Remember when Jessica Lynch was America’s heroine, rescued by Navy SEALs from the sexual predators who had captured her? Here’s what Newsweek wrote on April 14, 2003: “The possibility of mistreatment had been very much on the mind of President Bush, who, according to a senior administration official, had frequently raised concerns about American women’s falling into Iraqi hands.”

That was then. A happy time, a unified nation. This is now. The lie has exploded. Jessica Lynch has morphed into Lynndie England, cigarette in mouth (you’ve come a long way, baby), giving a smirking thumbs-up to the world as a prisoner is forced to masturbate in her presence.

We’ve entered the looking glass. Everything is precisely the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. The Iraqis aren’t the ones with WMDs, we are. And instead of Iraqi men molesting American women, American women are molesting Iraqi men.

Apologies dribble out of the White House, laced with damage control. Rumsfeld and Bush are sorry about the bad apples who violated the Geneva Convention at Abu Ghraib and compromised America’s mission. I’ll bet they are.

Especially the ones with the digital cameras.

So now the orchestrators of the horror show that is Iraq are tortured, you might say, with their own dilemma: How do they fake remorse (these people who refuse to keep a tally of the Iraqi civilian war dead) with enough sincerity, and throw in enough scapegoats of sufficiently high rank, to make it all go away and get America back on the right side of the looking glass?

Well, I don’t think they can. These photos from hell have done something even worse for the Bush war effort than depict crazed GIs acting like Saddam’s little helpers. The pictures have bared the humanity of the Iraqi “enemy”: They bleed, they feel shame, they have souls. They’re pretty much just like us. We may lose our enthusiasm for killing them.

Calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation is a wholly inadequate reaction to this scandal. Later, maybe. But if he’s dumped now (and replaced by Paul Wolfowitz?), are we free to return to business as usual?

The public is suddenly receptive to the truth about the brutality of the occupation of Iraq. American remorse ought to begin, I’d say, with a dismantling of the prison system we’ve built there.

Even without the torture, it’s an abomination, with a population by some estimates as high as 18,000. It includes women and children. The detainees are mostly civilians, rounded up in sweeps and late-night raids; these are ordinary people yanked out of their lives and disappeared into overcrowded pens like Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, Camp Bucca and other places, not to mention Guantanamo Bay.

They’re held in legal limbo, nameless, incommunicado. Loved ones are told nothing. In response to their desperate pleas, sentries at Abu Ghraib routinely pointed to a cardboard sign affixed to the barbed wire: “No visits are allowed, no information will be given and you must leave.”

Here are the voices we’ve failed to hear until now: “The Americans said they were taking my sons off for an hour of questioning. We have not seen them since.” So Amal Salim Madi, age 65, told Agence France-Presse about her three boys, missing since October.

“I have been here for five months!” This was the cry of a middle-aged woman to U.S. reporters as they toured Abu Ghraib last week, reaching out to them through steel bars (as reported by the Chicago Tribune). “I have children.”

We must let these people go, as step one in ending our reign of terror, a.k.a., our “mission,” in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s resignation can come later. So can Bush’s impeachment.