Disgraced by Silence

When will the president respond to the cascading allegations of prisoner abuse by the military?

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 19, 2004

A Marine guard in Iraq sprayed an alcohol-based liquid on a detainee, struck a match and ignited the prisoner, burning and blistering the man's hands. Another Marine held wires from an electric transformer to a detainee's shoulders, so that the man "danced as he was shocked," according to military documents made public this month.

In photographs now under investigation, Navy SEALs appeared to sit on a hooded and handcuffed Iraqi prisoner and to point a gun at another, bleeding detainee. Army troops repeatedly beat Afghan prisoners in their custody, ripped off their toenails, shocked them and dunked them in cold water, according to recent reports from a U.N. group. Most incidents occurred in 2002 and 2003.

The cascading allegations of prisoner abuse, of which these are but a few examples, long ago demolished the president's claim that only a few bad apples were responsible. So did reports that soldiers and officers who complained to their superiors about this mistreatment were threatened with reprisals and even physical harm. Yet as reports of unexplained deaths, humiliations and depravity across the services multiply, President Bush has recently remained silent.

Soldiers on the battlefield deserve a fair amount of leeway for their conduct under the heat of fire, when adrenaline and the need to kill or be killed prompt people to do things they'd never consider under normal conditions. But many pictures continuing to come to light look a lot more like coldblooded sadism than acceptable combat actions. It's impossible to know what other abuse, past or present, might await discovery.

In May, soon after photographs from Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad became public, Bush said he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi detainees … and their families." But "the cruelty of a few," he said a week later, "cannot diminish the honor and achievement" of the thousands who have served honorably in Iraq.

It is now clear that "the few" are in fact many. So many that either U.S. troops are not under their commanding officers' control or they are beating, burning and sodomizing suspects with the blessing — or worse, at the direction — of their commanders and Washington policymakers.

Either explanation is inexcusable, and as commander in chief, Bush has an obligation to say so.

The president should directly and forthrightly state what he neglected to say last spring: Torture and humiliation of prisoners disgraces every American; such conduct is always unacceptable; and any officer who learns of such behavior and, instead of stopping it, encourages or ignores it, will be court-martialed.