Archive for Sunday, May 9, 2004

U.S. losing battle for moral high ground

May 9, 2004


— So much for winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

Bad enough we invaded a nation that had not attacked us. Bad enough our core rationalization for that attack was apparently wrong.

Could anything be less likely to convince Muslims of our benevolence than the revelations now pouring out of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad? Osama bin Laden himself could not have created a more effective recruiting tool for al-Qaida.

That's because the series of photos that first came to public attention through CBS News' "60 Minutes II" represent more than Iraqi prisoners being abused at the hands of U.S. soldiers. No, what you see in those images is a calculated cultural provocation, the equivalent of America spitting on Islam.

Each image is more sickening than the last. You go from a group of detainees stripped nude and forced to pile atop one another to a chained man with women's panties on his head to a naked man grimacing on the floor at the end of a leash held by a female Army private. There are also reportedly pictures of male prisoners forced to simulate sex acts with one another.

Given fundamentalist Islam's attitudes toward nudity, homosexuality and women, one can only imagine how humiliating this is. It's no endorsement of those attitudes to say that using them in this way amounts to nothing less than psychological brutality.

Then, hard on the heels of that scandal comes a new one: an investigation into the deaths of prisoners reportedly abused while in U.S. custody.

The president has called this "abhorrent" and has gone on Arab television to express remorse. Among the soldiers involved, heads are already rolling. Some observers think the beheading should include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet even as you watch the recriminations and the punishments unfold, you are seized with a sense that it won't be enough. You wonder if, at this point, anything can be.

Experts have told us the war on terror cannot be won solely by guns. Victory will also depend on convincing the Arab world that ours is a better way. Except that suddenly, we don't look better. Indeed, we look like everything we said we were not.

And there is no excuse. Not youth, not zeal, not even the bestial mistreatment of corpses in Fallujah a few weeks back. When you wear the uniform of the United States of America, it is supposed to mean something. Certainly, something higher than this.

Not that many of us will care overmuch. Some will convince themselves the prisoners deserve what they got as payback for 9-11. Never mind that there is no known link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks.

Others will seek to minimize what happened, taking refuge in America's most cherished self-image. Meaning, the one that says we are the good guys, the wearers of white hats, the loners standing for right in the middle of a dusty street. They will note -- and it's a valid point -- that under Saddam Hussein, there could have been no investigation, no punishment, no official expression of remorse.

Still, it would be a mistake to put too much faith in our own righteousness. Doing so has a tendency, especially in the era of George W. Bush, to make us blithe and arrogant, so that we don't know -- and worse, don't care -- how we are perceived in the rest of the world. In a campaign that turns so heavily on Arab public opinion, that's like walking blind on a battlefield.

So anyone who is tempted to dismiss Arab fury as the ranting of people who just don't know us might do well to remember that many Arabs feel they know us better than we know ourselves. And what they know infuriates them.

We'd be well advised to be more concerned and engaged about all this than we've been so far. Because the nation can never be secure unless we win that battle for hearts and minds.

And right now, it's not even close.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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