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‘Better than the bad guy’ cannot be the goal

The fiasco involving the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib seems to be a much larger problem than early reports indicated.

At first, the abuse of prisoners seemed to be an isolated incident; then it was described as a “breakdown in the command structure,” but now it seems to be a much more endemic problem. So far, it seems, we were not told everything. But what else is new? If the Bush administration has been consistent about one thing, it is their doctrine to flat out deny anything that may be construed as a mistake on their part.

When the images were shown on CBS’s 60 Minutes, the effect was both embarrassing and counterproductive to U.S. efforts in the Middle East. But what was worse, it caught officials in Congress as much by surprise as it did the public — even though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been at the Capitol only hours before 60 Minutes aired. The indoctrinated secrecy apparently kicked in; why else did Rumsfeld not take the chance to explain the situation to members of Congress before they saw it on TV? Either that, or there is more to the story than it initially appeared.

The Geneva Convention explicitly states all prisoners “shall in all circumstances be treated humanely” and bans “violence to life and person … mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” are also banned. It is safe to say that such actions would include being sodomized with chemical lights and piled up with other prisoners, all of who are naked. So how can this happen? More importantly, how did they expect to get away with it?

If reports by The New Yorker and the Red Cross are correct, the administration had indications of mistreatment of prisoners as early as last November. One possible explanation of why nothing was done to prevent such occurrences is that the administration not only knew what was going on, they actively encouraged it to gain information.

One of the lamest excuses for the abuse is that Iraqis did not exactly welcome U.S. troops “with flowers” as originally predicted. But aren’t we supposed to be the good guys?

According to a report by the Red Cross, 70 to 90 percent of the inmates in the prisons were not only innocent, their families were not informed of their whereabouts or even if they were still alive. Doesn’t this sound like the horror stories the administration kept regurgitating whenever questioned whether the war in Iraq was worth it despite the lack of WMDs?

Establishing yourself as the good guy only works if you don’t screw up big time, then point at the former bad guy and say, “We’re bad, but that guy was even worse.” Saddam arguably was even worse, but he is hardly somebody we should compare ourselves to.

Even if these prisoners were “high value” targets — which they clearly weren’t — we should not treat them in the same way we previously condemned.

In their hearings with Rumsfeld last week, members of Congress seemed to be of the opinion that there is much more to the story than some low-ranking soldiers “blowing off steam,” as Rush Limbaugh described it. The New Yorker suggested the Department of Defense actively pursued “softening up prisoners” to extract information without having to rely on the CIA.

The DOD quickly responded, calling such allegations “outlandish, conspiratorial and filled with errors and anonymous conjecture,” also stating “no responsible official … approved any program that could conceivably have been intended to result” in the actions seen in the photographs.

I’d like to think this is the case, but then there are the “contractors” sent to Iraq that have been described by some to be more like “mercenaries.” Wouldn’t it be a nice way to circumvent not only the Geneva Convention but also military regulations if you could contract such “jobs” out to private companies? It also raises the question of what is happening to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, who admittedly have more information to divulge.

A lot of things do not add up and questions remain unanswered. Hopefully, the DOD has no hidden agenda, as they claim. But condemning the low-ranking soldiers seen in the photos to be scapegoats without investigating the situations that led to and allowed such occurrences is not an option.

Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in geography and an Oracle Opinion editor. spmeyer@mail.usf.edu