When America Forgets What It's About

The world that stood beside the U.S. after 9/11 now shuns the good nation that let its basic values be compromised in Iraqi prisons

By Ciro Scotti

(Editor's Note: Corrected on May 17. .)

The thing about Americans is this: We're good people. We help when our neighbors are in distress, even when those hurting are perfect strangers. We give more around the globe -- as a nation and individually -- than any other group of humans in history. And we don't just send money. We send our hearts and our college-age children. We open our doors to the striving, the wounded, the weak, and the threatened.

The masses who have huddled here over the past couple of hundred years have sent a message to a planet of fiercely guarded borders, ancient rivalries, godless religious warriors, and vicious dictators of every political stripe: In America, we live liberty, we breathe justice, and our blood boils at wanton cruelty. That is why, in our fervor, we sometimes seem to possess the naivete of the Children's Crusade that, in 1212, set out to recapture the Holy Land and came to grief en route. That is why we are such suckers.


  In the case of Iraq, a President ill-served by a cadre of neoconservatives aching to carry out a geopolitical agenda, convinced a majority of the country that an invasion was both necessary for the national defense and noble in its goal of freedom for the oppressed.

If there was a reason for the rush to Baghdad that resonated even with opponents of the so-called doctrine of preemption, it was that we had a duty as a free people to unshackle a land trembling under the bloody hand of a psychopath and struggling beneath the strictures of international sanctions.

Many of those who bought into the sales job of George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld did so not only because of the outrage over September 11 but also because of the outrage raised up in so many minds over the cruelties and injustice of Saddam Hussein.

All of which brings us to Abu Ghraib prison -- the site of so much of Saddam's sadism. The photos we have seen of U.S. soldiers turning this chamber of horror into a hall of humiliation sicken and appall us -- and dishonor the American men and women who have laid down their lives in the sands of Iraq. And the worst, Mr. Rumsfeld regrets, is yet to come. Additional photos and at least one video in the hands of military authorities are said to contain even more graphic records of abuse, some sexual in nature.


  How did we go from feeling the tears of the world running down our face in the weeks after September 11 to feeling the spittle of global disgust in our eyes almost three years later?

The answer is simple and wholly human: We forgot what we are about. We were angry and scared after the carnage of the Twin Towers, and we reacted with rightful force and vengeance. Our society and our survival were at risk, and we had no time for democratic niceties.

In the scramble for self-protection, whatever mistakes were made were largely understandable. And whatever else has come to pass since then, nothing can diminish the courage and resolve of patriots like President Bush, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke on September 11 and in the days immediately following.


  Once the dust had somewhat settled, however, we needed to start righting wrongs that had been inflicted in the helter-skelter of safeguarding the republic. We needed to demonstrate to a watching world that this was still America -- that our core beliefs did not go down in the inferno of the World Trade Center. We needed to mete out retribution and justice to the inhumane in as humane a manner as we could muster.

Instead, we kept hearing voices in the major media who went so far as to condone torture. In fact there is little doubt that by having some suspected terrorists interrogated in nations known to regularly trample human rights, the U.S. implicitly sanctioned torture.

Such practices, coupled with images of hooded prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and talk of secret tribunals, have shown our enemies and friends the face of Attorney General John Ashcroft's America -- not the face of the fair-minded, good-hearted country that we live in everyday.


  Now we learn that the military officially loosened the rules of interrogation after September 11. And Major General Geoffrey Miller, formerly commander of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo and the newly posted cleanup man at Abu Ghraib, has said that months ago on a visit to the prison, he ordered military police to take a more active role in interrogations by closely monitoring prisoners and reporting back to military intelligence. Whether those instructions and the use of civilian contract interrogators helped open the door to abuses remains unclear.

What does seem clear, however, is that in this atmosphere, abhorrent -- if aberrant -- behavior has flourished. "We are not an evil society. There is not something bad about America," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "America isn't what's wrong with the world."

It certainly isn't. It just seems that way to a lot of the people we're trying to save, Mr. Secretary.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz defended detention without representation.)

Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online