WASHINGTON -- Among the corrosive lies a nation at war tells itself is that the glory -- the lofty goals announced beforehand, the victories, the liberation of the oppressed -- belongs to the country as a whole; but the failure -- the accidents, the uncounted civilian dead, the crimes and atrocities -- is always exceptional. Noble goals flow naturally from a noble people; the occasional act of barbarity is always the work of individuals, unaccountable, confusing and indigestible to the national conscience.
This kind of thinking was widely in evidence among military and political leaders after the emergence of pictures documenting American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. These photographs do not capture the soul of America, they argued. They are aberrant.
This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war -- only the good is our doing -- becomes self-propagating.
But now we have photos that have gone to the ends of the Earth, and painted brilliantly and indelibly, an image of America that could remain with us for years, perhaps decades. An Army investigative report reveals that we have stripped young men (whom we purported to liberate) of their clothing and their dignity; we have forced them to make pyramids of flesh; we have made them masturbate in front of their captors and cameras; forced them to simulate sexual acts; threatened prisoners with rape and sodomized at least one; beaten them; and turned dogs upon them.
There are now images of men in the Muslim world looking at these images. On the streets of Cairo, Egypt, men pore over a newspaper. An icon appears on the front page: a hooded man, in a rug-like poncho, standing with his arms out like Christ, wires attached to the hands. He is faceless. This is now the image of the war. In this country, perhaps it will have some competition from the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. Everywhere else, everywhere America is hated, the hooded, wired, faceless man of Abu Ghraib is this war's new mascot.
The American leaders' response is a mixture of public disgust, and a good deal of resentment that they have, through these images, lost control of the ultimate image of the war. All the right people have pronounced themselves, sickened, outraged, speechless. But listen more closely. "And it's really a shame that just a handful can besmirch maybe the reputations of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines. ... " said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday.
Reputation, image, perception. The problem, it seems, isn't so much the abuse of the prisoners, because we will get to the bottom of that and, of course, we're not really like that. The problem is our reputation. Our soldiers' reputations. Our national self-image. These photos, we insist, are not us.
But these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals. But armies are made of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours.
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