Torture and humiliation of war prisoners is not in itself surprising. It happens in every war, on both sides. Savagery, after all, is the very language of war, transforming some combatants into feral avengers and leading others to shed civilized norms and acquiesce in the acts. We send soldiers to kill others, and therefore, to a degree, we tacitly accept that vile things will occasionally happen.
What makes this torture scandal different—what makes it an earthquake for our government rather than a tremor—is that it comes after a long, disheartening string of other revelations showing that this war was built on a foundation of deceptions suggesting a grave threat to our national security. Perhaps in justification of these false premises, President Bush, a born-again evangelical Christian, has told the American public and the world many times that it was the hand of “the Almighty” that guided him to send our troops into battle to liberate the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship that made torture a state policy.
When a president proclaims a righteous war, constantly using words like “freedom” and “justice” and invoking the will of God, he runs a great risk of losing the trust of his people if it turns out that, instead, the invasion was based not only on a heavenly vision but on deeply flawed war plans that assumed democracy could be transplanted anywhere with ease and at little cost. Our troops were put at unnecessary risk.
Under a more truthful presidency, the torture disclosures might have been less of a blow to the nation’s stature. This scandal, however, has scarred America worldwide—because Washington’s arrogance alienated once friendly nations and because the prison images run so counter to the president’s lofty words and claims. “Torture” and “the Almighty” do not fit together.
This could be a presidency in the process of unraveling—getting more and more naked as it loses its clothes.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 4, 2004