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May 13, 2004

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Dear Auntie Pinko,

Who's responsible for what happened in Abu Ghraib? The reservists on duty? Their commanding officers? Military Intelligence? The Pentagon (Rumsfeld)? The Bush Administration?


Mesa, AZ

Dear Mandy,

All of the above, and more. Auntie Pinko has read newspaper articles in which family and friends of the reservists accused of these atrocities have asked in great anguish why these reservists were assigned prison guard duty without "proper training and supervision."

Auntie Pinko doesn't think anyone should need "training" to know that stripping someone naked and standing them on a box with electrodes attached to their body is wrong. Auntie Pinko doesn't think it should have to take "proper supervision" to keep American soldiers from taking pictures of themselves grinning like idiots in the presence of men being dehumanized, tormented, and humiliated.

My father was a Marine and deeply proud of his service. At one time, when I was very young and studying the Nuremburg trials I asked him if when he was serving, would he have carried out the orders the German soldiers on trial in Nuremburg carried out?

This was not an easy question for my father. He first explained to me the training he and every other Marine received, regarding following orders, what they could be ordered to do, what they could not be legally ordered to do, and what they were supposed to do if they received an order they believed was illegal, both in the presence of the enemy in active combat, and in other circumstances. The idea was to keep exactly the kind of thing that happened in Abu Ghraib from happening.

But he also explained to me about the esprit de corps that was fostered, the sense of being part of the team, the pride in being able to carry out difficult orders, etc. He admitted that it might have been hard not to carry out such orders. Perhaps he would have done so. But he also said something I remember vividly:

"But I hope that instead of just going along with something I knew was wrong, I would have remembered that I was a Marine."

What he meant by that was the pride he felt in being part of the world's finest (in his opinion, of course) fighting unit - finest not just because they could get the toughest jobs done, but because they upheld American ideals of freedom, human rights, and basic decency. To have done something like what was done in Abu Ghraib would not only have disgraced him, it would have disgraced and dishonored the service in which he took such pride.

What has happened to America, that such an attitude today would be deemed "impractical," or even "wussy?" All of us, who are responsible for that change of attitude, are responsible for what happened in Abu Ghraib.

All of us who ignorantly mouth rationalizations about not being able to make omelettes without breaking eggs are responsible. All of us who think that it's "okay" to make American prisons "uncomfortable" for prisoners - because, after all, they're bad people, right? - we are responsible. Those who think it's okay not to spend extra money to relieve overcrowding and inhumane conditions because criminals deserve what they get bear that responsibility. So do those of us who don't want to know what is being done in our names, not just in the military penal system, but in the domestic penal system.

All of us who have somehow absorbed and encouraged and passed on the attitude that it's "cool" to be a "badass" are responsible. All of us who think that scrupulous attention to human rights, respecting the dignity of the individual, protecting the vulnerable and making society a place that values non-violent solutions to problems is "wimpy liberal new age stuff" are responsible.

Maybe it's time to dust off the hero, and let the anti-hero take a rest for awhile. Maybe it's time to focus on the unambiguously good, and the triumphs and sacrifices of doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming pressure to "be practical," "go along," or "take shortcuts." Maybe it's time to set up a few pedestals, and put the values we really care about on them, and give our endless fascination with people who accomplish good by doing bad things a rest.

Is it the Bush Administration's fault? Certainly - they have already modeled the worst kind of "the end justifies the means" rationalization in the rush to war in Iraq. Is it the Pentagon's fault? Of course it is - they not only "allowed" these methods to be used, they ignored the warnings about how far the situations had escalated for many months. Is it the fault of the superior officers in charge? Indisputably. Is it the fault of the young men and women who allowed themselves to be drawn into something so deeply repugnant? It is. But it is also my fault, and that of every other American who does not speak out to stop all of the human rights abuses perpetrated, foreign and domestic, in the name of the American people.

Time for all of us to speak up, take responsibility, and work for change. Now. Thanks for bringing it up, Mandy, painful as it is. And thanks for asking Auntie Pinko.

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