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Where's the outrage?

As America's politicians, media and citizens get used to war and abuses, horrific policies get a pass.

September 30, 2006|JoAnn Wypijewski | JOANN WYPIJEWSKI covered the Abu Ghraib trials at Ft. Hood, Texas, for Harper's magazine.

A YEAR AGO this week, a military jury convicted Army Reserve Pfc. Lynndie R. England of maltreating detainees. The face of the Abu Ghraib scandal, England is forever fixed in photographs as the girl with the bowl cut and the pixie smile who pointed at Iraqi prisoners while they were forced to masturbate and who held a writhing, naked man by a leash. Before sentencing, the Army prosecutor thundered: "Who can think of a person who has disgraced this uniform more? Who has held the U.S. military up for more dishonor?"

Indeed, it was that uniform -- not the breach of immutable standards of decency held by this nation -- that put England in the dock and eventually in prison. It was that uniform and nothing else, because if England and the others charged in the scandal had been civilian interrogators instead of military police, they would be among the privileged torturers whom President Bush and members of both parties in Congress are determined to keep on the job and to shield from future prosecution.

Abu Ghraib has become shorthand for the kind of abhorrent behavior that, in the latest discussion about interrogation techniques, nobody ventures to allow. In that sense, Abu Ghraib is the new American standard, a negative one, marking the line that must not be crossed. A positive standard -- that is, humane treatment of unarmed prisoners -- being inconceivable, debate turns on permissible degrees of inhumanity; "rough stuff," as New York Times columnist David Brooks and others justifying pain say lightly.

So here is the bitter joke: England, the public emblem of torture, was convicted for nothing so awful as what the president and his flank have chosen to protect. Her crime was to smile, to pose, to jeer at naked, powerless men, and to fail to stop their humiliations or to report them afterward. She did not shackle men in stress positions, strip them of their clothes, deny them sleep, force them to stand for hours or days, douse them with icy water, deprive them of heat or food or subject them to incessant noise or screaming.

Despite Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's compromise, none of those brutalities is expressly outlawed in the legislation that Congress just passed and the president is about to sign.

Such brutalities were regular fare at Abu Ghraib because interrogation, by civilian and military personnel, was regular fare. But interrogation was largely sidestepped in the Abu Ghraib trials, in which prosecutors focused on what soldiers did for "fun," for "laughs," with common criminals "of no value" to U.S. intelligence. The infamous pyramid and sexual mortifications were not part of interrogations, so these formed the centerpiece of criminal charges. The daily application of fear and cold and want and pain -- what Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., the putative ringleader of the scandal at Abu Ghraib, called his job of "terrorizing prisoners" -- was an accompaniment to questioning, so it went unpunished.

"We just humiliated them," England said; it could have been worse. For many detainees, it was. Two days before England was photographed laughing at prisoners, Manadel Jamadi died in a shower stall at Abu Ghraib. Army investigators found that he entered the stall under his own power with civilian interrogators said to be from the CIA. Later, soldiers smiled in pictures with his corpse. The interrogators had vanished, and no one was charged.

Congress would never justify murder by interrogators, but it hasn't insisted that anyone be held accountable for Jamadi's death either. There's a similar indifference to accountability in the one case in the Abu Ghraib scandal unavoidably linked to interrogation.

The Army never took a sworn statement from the prisoner who was forced to stand atop a box, draped in a hood and cape and told he would get a shock if he moved. Then the Army conveniently lost him, and though the MPs who improvised his ghoulish torment went to prison, the civilian interrogator who the MPs said instructed them to keep the prisoner awake was never charged. Take away the bogus wires and the iconic costume and this is the kind of treatment the president says is absolutely necessary for our safety.

The bold opposition wags a finger but leaves it to the president to set the rules. Where is the outrage? Like England and the others who went from good to bad, or bad to worse, through acquaintance with cruelty, finally accommodating themselves to it or even administering it, the citizenry, the media and the politicians have become insensible to horror.

Years of conditioning to abuse and war have had a numbing effect. So the president's advocacy of an "alternate set of procedures" for detainees gets a pass. The Democrats' official response, a pass. The McCain compromise, a pass masquerading as courageous dissent. Public reaction to legislating indefinite detention, the admissibility of hearsay, prosecutions based on torture, a pass.

As at Abu Ghraib, up is down, day is night.

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