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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card May 9, 2004

How Could Americans Do Such Things?

People in authority sometimes forget that their abstract words can turn into painfully specific actions on the ground.

For instance, I can imagine somebody reporting to a high Defense Department official: "We're not getting any useful information out of the prisoners we're arresting in Iraq."

There are several correct responses that high official could give, and all of them are questions:

"Are we already doing everything we legally or decently can in order to secure their cooperation?"

"Are we getting reliable information from cooperative Iraqis about which people to arrest?"

"Are we arresting the wrong people?"

Instead the high official thinks: Our soldiers are being killed out there, and if we could get more information we could save American lives. That is my first responsibility.

So he answers, "Don't tell me what you aren't getting! Make it happen!"

And if the high Defense Department official has already gotten rid of any subordinates with the spunk (i.e., "disloyalty") to say things like, "Sir, we are already at the limit of what the Geneva Convention and American law and public opinion will tolerate," then those words remain unsaid.

Instead, "Make it happen!" is the message that gets passed down the line.

Now, in a peacetime bureaucracy, ludicrous commands from superiors are often ignored or delayed, thus saving the country -- and the leader -- from some of his dumber mistakes.

But in wartime, there's a sense of urgent duty -- especially when accompanied by the mantra "American lives are at stake."

After all, that mantra happens to be true. There are terrorists and rebels and foreign agents in Iraq, plotting ways to kill American and allied soldiers -- and to kill Iraqis who cooperate with us.

It's so easy to lose track of another fact: Most of the people we arrest probably don't know anything useful, so no matter what we do to them, they can't give us any more information than we already have.

All we can do by humiliating, abusing, or torturing them is to make them into enemies -- and, when the facts come out (as, in a democracy like ours, they always do) earn the contempt and hatred of the world, and the outraged shame of our own people.

So here's a moral question for all of us to consider.

What if those wretched, shameful actions in Iraqi prisons (and the pictures we've seen are only the tip of the iceberg) brought us ten cases of prisoners giving up information that led to preventing ten acts of terrorism?

And let's say that those acts of terrorism might have caused an average of five deaths each?

Would that humiliation, abuse, and torture have been worth it, if it saved fifty lives?

If someone reached the conclusion that the lives saved were worth the degradation of ourselves and our prisoners, I would not consider them morally monstrous. A case can be made for that viewpoint.

But I would disagree with them. Perhaps because I think there are things more important than life.

Aren't our soldiers in Iraq precisely because there are causes worth putting the lives of our soldiers at risk? Liberating the Iraqi people, cutting off a major supporter of terrorism, preventing the development or deployment of weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was known to possess or be working on, and discouraging other nations from supporting terrorism -- those were all worthy reasons for putting our soldiers in harm's way.

Isn't maintaining our own decency as a nation, even in time of war, also worth risking the lives of American soldiers? Isn't maintaining America as America also a cause worth dying for?

Then, when you consider that the value of the intelligence gathered from these prisoners has been characterized as trivial, chances are that we lost some of our honor in those prisons in exchange for nothing.

Not fifty lives. Not ten lives. Not five.


And yet that high official -- whoever it might have been -- is no doubt looking around at the current mess, saying, "I never told them to strip prisoners naked and photograph them in order to break down their will through humiliation! I never told them to mistreat or abuse prisoners! I never authorized torture!"

I just wish that people with enormous responsibility would measure their words more carefully.

I have no way of knowing whether Donald Rumsfeld was the high official who unwittingly but carelessly gave the go-ahead for "enhanced" interrogation in those prisons.

But he is known to be the kind of man who drives his subordinates rather than leading them; who punishes those who don't deliver the results he expects, whether his expectation was reasonable or not; and who surrounds himself with people who don't tell him he's wrong.

That's the kind of man who needs to remind himself every day -- no, every hour: I have so much power that every word I say might have serious consequences.

Rumsfeld understands that his words will have political consequences -- he's a master of manipulating the press.

But he's not White House chief of staff, he's the Secretary of Defense. Lives can be blown away by his words; our national honor can be tattered; and not just by what he says, but also by what he does not say.

Because one thing seems obvious:

Even if Rumsfeld never said words like the ones I speculated about, it's almost certain that he did not say: Getting information from these prisoners is not worth losing our national soul.

And it is our national soul that's on the line.

We already spat on honor back in '99, when we failed to impeach a President who stained our national honor and perjured himself over contemptible issues.

But nobody's life was at stake.

Rumsfeld isn't a likeable guy. He's a self-serving bureaucratic bully, and it may well be that his usefulness to America -- which has been undeniable -- is now outweighed by the cost of his style of leadership.

Frankly, I'm not terribly interested in what happens to Rumsfeld. Obviously, the President's political enemies are hoping to use this as an excuse to humiliate the President and hurt his reelection chances, and forcing Rumsfeld out would do that.

But we know Bush is capable of getting rid of powerful men who have become liabilities -- that's why we aren't reading about Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader these days. So if the President wants Rumsfeld gone, he's gone, and then somebody else will be Secretary of Defense, and the war will go on.

I'm far more concerned about what this whole incident says about America -- about who we are.

Because at some point down the chain of authority, somebody made specific decisions about methods short of traditional torture that would be used on prisoners who might or might not be enemies of the United States.

And when those orders were given out, American citizens obeyed them.

There is an ugly little strain in American culture, epitomized by the slogan "Winning is the only thing."

It permeates our culture like an infection and makes us sick.

That's why we now take it for granted that athletes will pretend to have caught a pass, or insist that they didn't foul an opponent, or break the rules in the hope that they won't get caught.

That's why people actually said, over and over, during the Clinton scandals, "Everybody lies about sex."

To which my answer was, "Only people who break the rules lie about sex. And we're not all rulebreakers."

Or are we?

Those American soldiers who were ordered to degrade both their prisoners and themselves had a duty to refuse to obey those orders.

But they had already been trained that when the coach tells you to break the rules, you go ahead and break them and it's ok as long as the ref doesn't catch you.

They had already been trained that if all the other guards are doing it, then it's ok, because "everybody" breaks that particular rule.

They had been taught that if enough people agree that what you're doing is really, really important, than normal rules of human behavior no longer apply to you.

I remember, when I was a kid, being told stories about athletes who told the ref that they didn't make a legal catch, or they stepped out of bounds, because they only wanted to win within the rules.

Maybe it's time for America to stop living as if The Outback's slogan "No rules, just right" were our national motto.

It's too late to undo what happened in Iraq. More Americans will surely die because of those pictures -- though President Bush is following the correct course by letting our legal system demonstrate how a decent society deals with corruption.

But let's not pretend that the sickness in those prisons was not an American sickness. Only a few soldiers actually performed these actions -- but that's because only a few soldiers were assigned to those prisons.

Does anybody seriously doubt that if a completely different set of soldiers had been assigned, those abuses would not have occurred?

We don't prevent such indecencies by punishing the military after the fact.

We prevent indecencies by insisting on a restoration of the very concept of decency in American life, and teaching it to our children from the cradle on, and despising and shunning those -- even presidents -- who behave with indecent contempt for the rules of civilized behavior.

When you have termites, you don't solve the problem by painting the porch.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.

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