We’re often told not to discuss politics or religion in polite company. But sometimes your hand is forced. It all started with two stories that appeared in subsequent weeks — in the 9 May and 16 May 2004 issues:
Proof The Terrorists Have Won
Girl Scout troops in Martin County, Fla., decided to have a Mother’s Day “scavenger hunt” at the Treasure Coast Square Mall. Fathers would accompany their daughters and go “window shopping” for items on the hunt list, marking them off as they spotted them, and then shop for a nice present for Mom when they were done. At least 150 father/daughter pairs signed up, but mall management wouldn’t allow the hunt, citing “security” concerns in the post-9/11 world. “Since Sept. 11, we have looked at our security procedures very closely,” said mall spokeswoman Rachelle Crain. First, “How do we know they’re Girl Scouts?” she said of the uniformed 5- to 18-year-old girls. But, more importantly, “Our enhanced security prohibits us from hosting events that allow participants to wander freely around the mall area.” (Stuart News) …Right. Their dads could whip out a concealed credit card or something.
Proof The Terrorists Have Won II
When a 15-year-old boy at Prosser (Wash.) High School turned in his sketchbook to his art teacher, the teacher was distressed to see it contained some “political” art. One sketch showed President Bush’s head on a stake. Another showed the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in flames. Another was captioned “End the War — on Terrorism”. Protected speech in the Land of the Free, right? Of course not! The teacher notified the vice principal, who notified the police, who called in the U.S. Secret Service. “We assume that he deliberately took an action of his own free will,” explains Prosser Police Chief Win Taylor, “which he reasonably should have known was against the code of conduct.” Secret Service agents interviewed the boy, but it’s unclear if they took any other action. The boy “thinks it’s all funny,” says a family friend. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Times) …Right: so funny it’s scary.
Diane in WebTVland took great exception to the second story. She wrote to complain, and I responded. That exchange was published in the 23 May editions:
Freedom of speech is one thing, but potential subversion and outright sympathy for the enemy is another. You are just the type of person who whines that early signs of trouble were not heeded before 9-11, but now cries about ‘freedoms’ when those in authority do act cautiously. It sounds like that boy was only questioned and nothing was done to him, so why did you even mention it? I know why, and you don’t deserve the freedom this great country has purchased for you and others like you over the last several hundred years. By the way, if these terrorists do win the battle, people like you are the first ones they will kill — they don’t like what you believe in.
Well, that’s certainly true: I believe in freedom of speech. By their actions, the 9/11 terrorists clearly don’t. I believe in true freedom of religion. By their actions, they clearly don’t. I believe in due process, and they very obviously don’t. I believe in the other rights enumerated in our Constitution (and the responsibilities that go with them), and most would agree they don’t. So what’s Diane’s complaint? Ah yes: that I “whined” about “early signs of trouble” that were “not heeded” by the Bush administration before 9/11 (Yeah? Can you point to one instance? I didn’t think so) and that I “don’t deserve the freedom this great country has purchased” for me.
Does Everyone Clearly Understand this Woman’s Concept of Freedom? In her world view, she gets to decide who “deserves” freedom. I’ve spent 10 years supporting our country’s military in True, but I “don’t deserve” the freedom that my country guarantees to all of its citizens. (And, sigh, in the recent Abu Ghraib scandal, our country’s military let us all down when it first didn’t follow the Geneva Conventions, as our country both has agreed to do and demands other countries follow and, second, didn’t take strong, decisive action against the chain of command that allowed, or even ordered, soldiers to commit outrageous acts against prisoners. But I digress.)
Diane “knows why” I “mentioned the story” but doesn’t offer to share what her clairvoyance revealed to her. So why did I “mention” it? Because it was wrong; it was an outrageous abuse against the first right guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. And most everyone did get that.
A Thoughtful Course of Action
What would I have suggested have happened instead? If the teacher was worried about the art, she should have called the kid’s parents in for a chat. Remember when teachers did that? If she had further concerns (say, the parents didn’t give her a reasonable response), then she takes it to the principal. She skipped the first part and went straight for the second. The principal, then, if he saw a problem, should have done what the teacher failed to do: call in the parents. He failed too.
Schools are so quick to call the police these days, and it’s pathetic. The stories in my Zero Tolerance series are a case in point. I mean really: call the cops because a tiny bat fell off a baseball trophy?! But then, the police were called in the current case. The police are supposed to know people’s rights! Are we expected to believe they don’t understand them? They are supposed to use discretion and act as gatekeepers to the courts; they didn’t roll their eyes and tell the school it was overreacting? Nope: that would involve (gasp!!) a decision! They passed the buck to the Secret Service. Once called, of course the Secret Service had to send someone out to interview the boy. But finally there was someone who had the guts to make a decision and not pass the buck, so the case ended there. Bravo to that anonymous federal agent.
Teachers are cowed. School administrators are cowed. Even the police are cowed. By what? Fear of ZT rules and laws. Fear of lawsuits. Fear of making a decision. Fear of taking responsibility. That’s simply not good for our country. What happens when we get into that mindset? Well, we get things like enlisted Army types being ordered to torture a prisoner. They think: “Gee, that doesn’t sound like a good idea, but that’s my orders!” when they should be thinking: “That’s wrong. That’s against international law, that’s against ethics, that’s against morals. My superior is out of line, and I need to report this.” That takes guts. Remember when we had guts? I do, and I’m not that old.
The slippery slope is called that for a reason. Being a citizen of the U.S., or the world, is not just about “rights”; it’s also about responsibility. It’s about saying something is wrong when you’re a witness to wrongdoing. It’s not about screaming “you don’t deserve freedom” when someone points out a problem. It’s not about forcing your world view on others, it’s about seeing the big picture. We’ve already seen what happens when someone like Diane in WebTVland gets to be in charge: that was Iraq. With any luck, the world will get beyond Saddam, and people like Diane, but it won’t be easy. We all have to take responsibility. It’s a tough job, but that’s what’s required out of being a good citizen of the world. From what I see, the only ones who “don’t deserve freedom” are those who don’t accept those parallel responsibilities.
The first several readers I heard from were quite upset that I implied that the U.S. military had acted contrary to the Geneva Conventions. Several were livid that I accused the military of abuse when they are, at this point, still “allegations,” not proven cases of abuse. Example:
Wow. If you’ve always been a dogmatist, using your column to make wild, unsubstantiated attacks on the government, in lieu of reasonable discussion, I’ve never noticed it before. And, so, perhaps, shame on me. If, however, this is the first time you’ve used your forum to make critically damning conclusions, without the facts to support them, and while the investigations are still in process….well, that’s enough for me. —Alan, Massachusetts
“Wild, unsubstantiated attacks”? OK, let’s take a look at some recent reports and statements on the Abu Ghraib fiasco:
In addition to the obvious humiliation tactics used in Abu Ghraib shown in released photographs (example shown here), there is evidence that at least one inmate was slammed head first into a wall so hard that he died; beating a prisoner to death is certainly not treatment according to the Geneva Conventions. Several had their faces pushed into urine. One guard, Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., is reported to have said to another, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’”
Who documented these charges? Enemy propagandists? Nope: U.S. military investigators. (Source: Los Angeles Times)
“We are devastated by what happened at Abu Ghraib. We apologize to those who were abused in such an awful manner.” (Note the use of “abuse,” not “alleged abuse.”) A statement by a foreign agent trying to disgrace the U.S.? Nope: President Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell. (Source: Reuters)
These all are merely allegations? Nope: U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Sivits has already pleaded guilty to three charges:
- Maltreatment of subordinates by taking “a photograph of nude detainees being forced into a human pyramid position.”
- “Negligently fail[ing] to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty and maltreatment, as it was his duty to do.”
- “Did maltreat a detainee, a person subject to his orders, by escorting the detainee to be positioned in a pile on the floor to be assaulted by other soldiers.”
Sivits admitted under oath that detainees were beaten, stripped and forced to masturbate and simulate oral sex on each other. He said he “saw people being stomped on,” at least one so hard that he was knocked out, but did nothing to stop it. “I let everyone down…. I should have protected those detainees.”
U.S. Army judge Col. James Pohl asked Sivits: “Did you know this was wrong?” “Yes, sir,” Sivits replied. “Did you have a duty to prevent this?” the judge asked. “Yes, sir.” “Did you try to stop this?” “No, sir.”
Before being sentenced to a year in a military prison, Sivits said “I wanted to help the people of Iraq be free. I’ve learned a huge lesson: You have to stand up for what is right. I’m sorry for what I’ve done.” (Source: Los Angeles Times)
“Under [Saddam Hussein], prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” A statement by some anti-Bush Democratic rabble-rouser? Nope: a statement by President George W. Bush, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military. (Source: White House Press Office transcript of the president’s address to the United States Army War College)
Based on this rather damning evidence, admissions, court conviction(s), and apologies by our own leaders, who can blame anyone for saying these events actually happened? They’re clearly not simple allegations, are they?
I take deep exception to your comments regarding the problems in the Iraqi prison and failure to follow “Geneva Conventions”. The United States is not dealing with a conventional enemy: they don’t wear uniforms, they shoot from hiding, they commit homicide by blowing themselves up just to take someone with them (in many cases non-combatants like women & children). They respond to U.S. “abuses” of taking photos of naked prisoners by hacking the head off an innocent american seeking employment (Nick Berg) and videotaping it…then broadcasting that tape publicly, their faces covered with masks, and cheering loudly as they savagely slice off his head and holding it up to the camera like a sick trophy. Do you think you can possibly equate what our troops have done with the multiple atrocities of the Iraqis? I do not think that you “don’t deserve freedom”, but I do think that your position regarding the Iraq situation is offensive. —Max, New York
1) Disgusting actions like what happened to Nick Berg don’t justify disgusting actions like what happened to detainees in Abu Ghraib. 2) Do I think I “can possibly equate what our troops have done with the multiple atrocities of the Iraqis”? Of course not: I have not done so — and again, two wrongs still don’t make a right. 3) What, specifically, do you think is offensive? That I called a wrong a wrong? Are you also offended that the President and the Secretary of State called it wrong? Why or why not?
I believe your blaming our entire military for the actions of a few went a bit too far. To date, we have heard allegations against less than 2 dozen officers and enlisted personnel in the US Army, most of them reserves. While I do not condone the actions described and personally hold the officers directly in charge of those personnel equally if not more responsible than those that physically committed abuse, I do not think it appropriate to paint the entire armed forces with this same broad brush. Hopefully, those responsible will be held accountable for their actions or inaction. As for your claim of “didn’t take strong, decisive action…”, that too remains to be seen. Even those who committed these acts are afforded the same due process, protected by the same Constitution that is the crux of your repartee. As for me, my wife and I are both veterans of the US Military and our only son currently serves as a machine-gunner in the USMC, the fourth straight generation in our family to proudly serve. Please do not condemn us all for the actions of a few. —Tim, Georgia
Good points. I do have conflicts in my job description, such as entertain… and provoke thought; lead opinion… and reflect existing sentiment. There’s no denying that the existing sentiment worldwide, and growing within the U.S., is condemnation of our actions in Iraq. That a very small number of soldiers gave explosive ammunition to fuel that condemnation is awful; it doesn’t just paint the entire armed forces with a broad brush of moral outrage, it paints the entire country in justifiable outrage. As I’ve said, I’ve been a strong public supporter of our military since True started 10 years ago. That I feel shame over the actions of a few speaks volumes; I, and many of my readers, feel let down by those we trusted. The military, and the country, has a lot of work ahead to fix the very real damage that has (not “allegedly has”!) been done.
As for taking “strong, decisive action,” yes: the military did do just that — against several enlisted men and women. But they did not do so against the chain of command, who “knew or should have known” what was going on. Yes, the investigation has started to widen and go up that chain to those in charge, but it certainly didn’t happen as quickly as it did with the enlisted.
Despite your implied contention, few countries faithfully follow (or even attempt to follow) the conventions (Geneva and Hague) and the Law of Land Warfare, but I know that the majority (99%) of our military try, to the best of their abilities, to adhere to the established standards. Please also remember that these “rules” of Abu Ghraib were approved by civilian attorneys (probably ideologues) and not by practiced judge advocates (military attorneys), many of whom raised concerns about these rules. I think the military’s restraint regarding our actions since the start of the war have been admirable, as it is always much easier to visit the enemy with massive destruction than attempting to separate out legitimate military targets from civilians. Until this entire episode plays out, I don’t see how you can say that “strong, decisive action” hasn’t been taken. Already 6 officers have had letters of admonishment/reprimand placed in their files, which effectively ruins any chances at promotion and is in reality, a career-ending action. Yes, junior enlisted personnel have so far borne the brunt of “justice”, but I would hope that if an officer is found to have committed an overt act (either actual participation, directing, planning, or giving orders), that they would be punished to the maximum extent allowed under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, rather than if they had committed an act of omission (such as not properly supervising their enlisted personnel). If officers are found to have committed serious transgressions, it will be a “black-eye” for the military to not punish them severely, if guilty. Those that commit the offenses will always bear a much greater responsibility, for they had the ability to end things rather quickly and despite their protestations, one can’t blame the military when you don’t afford another human being the same simple courtesies that you would expect to be given. The military provides plenty of training in regards to the Geneva Conventions and Law of Land Warfare, I would estimate that I have had over 25 hours of training (on each subject) in my career. One needs look no further than Specialist Darby than to find a soldier who served in a manner that we, the American people, expect, but can also look up to. —Lt. Col. David, US Army, Missouri
You and I agree that Darby, who brought the abuse to light, is to be commended. I have read, but did not clip the story so I can quote it directly here, that the enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib, many or most of them reservists, did not have training in the Geneva Conventions. I was too young for Vietnam and too old for the current draft, and did not volunteer for the armed services, but I have at least a basic knowledge of the Geneva Conventions just from watching TV and movies. That 1) real soldiers and 2) those assigned to actually work with detainees, whether civilian or combatant (both of whom are covered by the Conventions) don’t have specific training regarding the “rules of war” is a scandal, if true.
I agree totally with you in your posting of the story and your take on it. Clearly a case of overreaction and lack of clear thinking which is a standard for ZT policies. I disagree with Diane. However, I’ve noticed in the years that I’ve been subscribed to your newsletters that sometimes you react very passionately to comments that reflect poor thinking or just outright stupidity. Sorry, I just don’t get it. It’s like scolding a 6-year-old because he didn’t correctly factor an algebraic equation. —Oscar, California
This isn’t advanced algebra, this is basic citizenship — but I get your point. There are two big reasons I take the time and effort to respond to silly spoutings like Diane’s: First, she’s by far not the only one who thinks this way. People who have to deal with such types need examples of how to talk back when they hear such idiocy. And second, readers find it entertaining.
Through time the world has regarded America as a great leader. It has been the one country that has staunchly espoused the rights of the individual and has been the dream nation for many. This discovery of a country that fails to honor international conventions, that runs after stupidity, is so cowed that it cannot speak without seeking recourse to unnecessary authority, is a little shocking and a let down. More so, because, if you see it from an outsider’s point of view, America today is no different from so many others. Are we going back over the centuries to Hamurabi’s code of law: an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, a life for a life? Is that what America stands for? Or does it stand for Justice, Liberty and Freedom? Overreaction, frivolous suits, zero tolerance…for God’s sake! It seems as if the collective conscience that made U.S. so great has decided to go bury its head in the sand or maybe is turning in the grave. No longer is the U.S. a place one would like to be, and its so called high moral posturing is revealed to be an empty container “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. Are these the actions of a world leader? The answer is a resounding NO! Is this the image you want to leave us with? People like Diane certainly seem to affirm that. —Kirti, India
And that, of course, is exactly why I rant against such things. This is exactly why responsibility is such an important thing to remember, especially when people are screaming for their rights. I’m proud that the U.S. has been such a good example of how to be a human, and how to run a government “for the people, by the people.” It’s for that very reason that I’m so ashamed of what some of our representatives to the world did at Abu Ghraib. Rather than standing up and showing the world how things should be done, they showed the world that we’re no better than the cruel and selfish dictator we deposed. Is that damage irreversible? Of course not. But the damage certainly is real, and we have a lot of work to do to repair it.
As I’ve shown, many of the things I’ve ranted about over time — “zero tolerance” in schools, ignoring responsibility while demanding “rights,” ridiculous lawsuits that demand “someone must pay — even though I’m really the one at fault” are all interrelated. They’re symptoms of an ill society, and if we don’t get to work soon on fixing it, “the Fall of Rome” will look like a silly little warm-up exercise.
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