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Justice Answers Barbarism
by A.M. Siriano
03 May 2004

The abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Gharaib prison is disgusting; what is surprising is that we continue to be surprised by man's tendency to fall into barbarism.


One British newspaper calls them “the pictures that lost the war.”   That’s sensationalistic, to be sure, and optimistic to all who are opposed to the Bush Doctrine.  But it is a sentiment that could prove prophetic, if we don’t act swiftly and harshly.

The “pictures” are the globally published photographs of the abuse of Iraqi detainees by Americans and Britons at Saddam’s own fortress of despair, the Abu Gharaib prison. They are disgusting, disturbing ... and not surprising.  What is surprising is that we continue to be surprised by man’s tendency to fall into barbarism.

The propensity of man to easily turn into a monster is not a trait reserved for uncivilized brutes like Saddam and his sons.   It lies in wait inside every one of us.  Weirdly we are taught this lesson repeatedly and promptly dismiss it.  A little over a half century ago, we discovered that the normally good German people could be easily duped by a madman, who turned many of them into animals.  Was there something inherently wrong with the German people that made it possible for them to torture and kill millions of Jews?   It would be convenient to think it, but it would not explain the crimes against humanity known in every corner of the world.   The Holocaust is a reminder not that bad things happen, but that we are the bad things that happen.

Man has spent thousands of years trying to figure out a way to curb his own depravity.  Some try to deny this penchant for evil, explaining it away as a byproduct of circumstance—which is why our modern criminal justice system is more interested in rehabilitation than punishment.  More practical men, such as the Framers, understood reality and sought to constrain evil by means of sound government.   As James Madison famously stated, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  To date, no one has come as close to getting it right as those great men.

But nowhere will you find in the works of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton or any of the other Founding Fathers, a promise that man can be made to be good.  The very optimism that compelled them to risk all, in order to secure for us a framework of liberty, was tainted by a pessimistic regard for man’s ability to keep his savagery in check.  To understand the Founders, and the America they created, is to keep ever in mind that we are just a few steps short of becoming little Saddam Husseins.

On many websites, the Arabs are doing their best to convince the world that Americans are no better than Hussein’s band of thugs.   Photos or no photos, they have been doing this for some time, but now they have us on the ropes.  Most of pictures seem to show real abuse, though something less than actual torture.  But I have seen other pictures of gang rape that are truly revolting.  If these rape photos are real (and, given the ease by which such images can be manufactured or put into a false context, we must not assume they are), the punishment of the guilty must be extreme.   In wartime, the firing squad is more than appropriate for men and women who would dare such hideous acts.

If President Bush’s great experiment is to work, he must show the world that in America, expressions of dismay and disgust are followed by terrible acts of justice.   The Arabs must be given no room to absolve their own history of barbarism by pointing out the barbarism of their enemy.  In all ways, and to all peoples, let justice be the answer to the abuses of Abu Gharaib.

A. M. Siriano is a DBA/web developer by day and writes for his own website, amsiriano.com, by night
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