New York Times
Published: January 13, 2005
In scandals, chronology can be everything. The facts you find out first, the images that are initially imprinted on your consciousness, the details that then follow: these make the difference between a culture-changing tipping point and a weatherable media flurry. With the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the photographs, which have become iconic, created the context and the meaning of what took place. We think we know the contours of that story: a few soldiers on the night shift violated established military rules and subjected prisoners to humiliating abuse and terror. Chaos in the line of command, an overstretched military, a bewildering insurgency: all contributed to incidents that were alien to the values of the United States and its military. The scandal was an aberration. It was appalling. Responsibility was taken. Reports were issued. Hearings continue.
But the photographs lied. They told us a shard of the truth. In retrospect, they deflected us away from what was really going on, and what is still going on. The problem is not a co-ordinated cover-up. Nor is it a lack of information. The official government and Red Cross reports on prisoner torture and abuse, compiled in two separate volumes, ''The Abu Ghraib Investigations,'' by a former Newsweek editor, Steven Strasser, and ''Torture and Terror,'' by a New York Review of Books contributor, Mark Danner, are almost numbingly exhaustive in their cataloging of specific mistakes, incidents and responsibilities. Danner's document-dump runs to almost 600 pages of print, the bulk of it in small type. The American Civil Liberties Union has also successfully engineered the release of what may eventually amount to hundreds of thousands of internal government documents detailing the events.
That tells you something important at the start. Whatever happened was exposed in a free society; the military itself began the first inquiries. You can now read, in these pages, previously secret memorandums from sources as high as the attorney general all the way down to prisoner testimony to the International Committee of the Red Cross. I confess to finding this transparency both comforting and chilling, like the photographs that kick-started the public's awareness of the affair. Comforting because only a country that is still free would allow such airing of blood-soaked laundry. Chilling because the crimes committed strike so deeply at the core of what a free country is supposed to mean. The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a sign of both freedom's endurance in America and also, in certain dark corners, its demise.
The documents themselves tell the story. In this, Danner's book is by far the better of the two. He begins with passionate essays that originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, but very soon leaves the stage and lets the documents speak for themselves. His book contains the two reports Strasser publishes, but many more as well. If you read it in the order Danner provides, you can see exactly how this horror came about - and why it's still going on. As Danner observes, this is a scandal with almost everything in plain sight.
The critical enabling decision was the president's insistence that prisoners in the war on terror be deemed ''unlawful combatants'' rather than prisoners of war. The arguments are theoretically sound ones - members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not party to the Geneva Convention and their own conduct violates many of its basic demands. But even at the beginning, President Bush clearly feared the consequences of so broad an exemption for cruel and inhumane treatment. So he also insisted that although prisoners were not legally eligible for humane treatment, they should be granted it anyway. The message sent was: these prisoners are beneath decent treatment, but we should still provide it. That's a strangely nuanced signal to be giving the military during wartime.