Evan Maloney's Brain Terminal:

Nick Berg and Abu Ghraib

Ever since the Abu Ghraib prison pictures were released, I've been struggling to process them. There is something viscerally repellant about them, and to whatever extent some of them represent violations of the Geneva Convention, they are also evidence of crimes. Crimes, I might add, that the U.S. military was already investigating vigorously. On January 16th, the U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing an investigation into "reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility." But despite the advance warning, the media reacted with mock shock when the photographs became public.

For days on end, you couldn't avoid the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. Nor should you have, because they show the sad truth that, however noble our intentions, we are not perfect. And unless we recognize that fact, we have no hope of overcoming those imperfections.

The firestorm over the pictures obscured an important debate, however: how far can we, or how far should we go in interrogating prisoners who might have information that could be used to save lives? Not every picture from Abu Ghraib prison shows abuse. Some of them document interrogation techniques that are arguably legitimate. What if such tactics yielded information that foiled a deadly attack? Does humiliating--not physically abusing--a prisoner cross the line? Where should that line be drawn?

Some have said that we should test the Abu Ghraib pictures based on how we'd feel if we saw our own prisoners of war in similar circumstances. That's certainly something to consider for future wars; but in this one, we'd be quite lucky if our enemies limited themselves to mere humiliation.

Since the Abu Ghraib story broke, I had been planning to link to a number of articles criticizing the actors in the scandal. But as each day passed, I held off; I wasn't sure where we should be drawing the line between effective interrogation and the humane treatment of enemy captives who might know of plans to kill our soldiers or citizens. So, while I felt many of the Abu Ghraib pictures deserved condemnation, I also thought it would be intellectually dishonest to blindly condemn them all. What if some of the pictures showed legitimate and effective tactics? What am I condemning, and what am I not? The Abu Ghraib pictures led me into a mental quagmire.

And then the horrible news about the beheading of Nick Berg came over the wire. I wanted to write about it, but unfortunately, that required me to watch it. One minute I was fretting about our treatment of Baathists, insurgents, and yes, probably innocents in an Iraqi prison. The next minute I found my head reflexively jerking from the screen as I saw life itself ripped from a living man, a man whose only offense was having the courage to step into a war zone and try to help rebuild a country. There's nothing like watching a beheading to put things in perspective.

Not that you could find any depictions of the horrific murder in the traditional media. Their airwaves were absent of Berg's haunting screams. Unless you went digging online, you wouldn't see the ghastly image of Berg's severed head being held up like a trophy. The media that had--rightfully, in my opinion--showed us the ugly reality of Abu Ghraib prison refused to do the same with Berg's murder.

One day the media was telling us we had to see the pictures from Abu Ghraib so we could understand the horrors of war. But with Berg's beheading, we're told we can't handle the truth. It kind of makes you wonder which masters the media serves: images that cast us in a negative light get a full airing; images that remind us of the savagery of our enemies are hidden from view, lest we get blood lust. But is it possible to win a war without a little blood lust?

We are fighting a war in which our media is seen as a weapon to be used against us. We are a free and open society. We are, on the whole, a kind and caring people. We are also enormously self-critical, to the point where it sometimes seems as though we despise ourselves more than we do those who seek to slaughter us wholesale.

Terrorists know this, and they play upon these traits to convince us that maybe we're the ones who are wrong, that maybe we should just retract into our shells and stop fighting. But didn't we try that already?

We tried not fighting after hundreds of Marines were killed in Beirut. We tried not fighting after the first World Trade Center bombing. We tried it after Khobar Towers, Kenya and Tanzania. We didn't fight after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. According to the theories of the peace movement, shying away from these fights should have brought us peace. Instead, it led directly to September 11th.

Nick Berg's al Qaeda murderers claimed that it was revenge for Abu Ghraib. They never needed such an excuse before. There was no Abu Ghraib when four charred corpses of U.S. civilians were hung from a bridge in Fallujah. There was no Abu Ghraib when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's head was cut off in Pakistan. The sooner we face the truth, the better: nothing would make radical Islamists happier than an opportunity to subject each and every one of us to the same fate as Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl.

Put your hand on your neck and imagine a large knife sawing though it. (Stop and think for a minute...you can almost feel it, can't you?) Well, that's just one of your possible fates if we decline to fight this war. Our enemies will fight us to the death regardless of whether we choose to return the favor. Wishing a war away does not make it so. We should have learned that lesson on September 11th.

Those who committed crimes in America's name at Abu Ghraib prison must be punished. And they will be. That's just one of the things that separates us from our enemies: abuse committed in our name is rejected, while murder committed in theirs is routine.

It is not easy to be optimistic when I see the way the media is covering this war. But the other day, a thought occurred that offered a glimmer of hope. Al Jazeera aired the live testimony of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the Abu Ghraib scandal. Al Jazeera! And President Bush apologized on Arab TV for the misdeeds at the prison. How strange it must have seemed in the Arab world to see government leaders answering questions and apologizing. I can't help but think that at least a handful of people in the Middle East wondered why their own leaders never do that.

For us to achieve a just victory, it is important to hold ourselves to a higher morality. And when we fall short, the rest of the world should see that we can confront our own mistakes. If airing the Abu Ghraib prison pictures helps us do that, all the better. But we must not let terrorists take it as a sign that we don't have the stomach for war. That's why it's important to show the rest of the world that we're not afraid to kick some ass. And if seeing the gruesome images of Nick Berg's beheading gives us the mettle required to win this war, then he will not have died in vain.

Evan Maloney publishes the Brain Terminal web site, www.brain-terminal.com. To receive Brain terminal by email, subscribe at http://brain-terminal.com/common/subscribe.html.