May 14, 2004 -- Most Americans have reacted to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners with the same shock, outrage, and disgust that Iraqis themselves feel. This reaction confirms the health of America's ethical infrastructure but also calls into question a fundamental premise of President Bush's war on terrorism.
Why are we sickened by photos of humiliated prisoners, many of whom might have killed Americans or supported Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda? Aren't they getting what they deserve? We react the way we do because we are a civilized country based on certain universal principles of morality and justice: that human beings possess an inherent dignity and autonomy as individuals and should not be subjected to the arbitrary use of force, either by other individuals or by government.
Governments should protect the life, liberty, and property of individuals, and thus their powers must be limited and checked lest they become our masters rather than our servants. Even suspected criminals and terrorists should be protected by some form of due process; they are not playthings for the whims of their guards. If we punish them, it is in order to administer justice, not to satisfy sadistic urges.
Our military violated those principles, but we have a system that allows us to expose and correct such violations—a mark of our system's political health. And our revulsion at the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison is a mark of the moral health of our culture.
While most governments and individuals in Arab and Islamic countries were also outraged at the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, the similarities to our government and culture end there. There was little outrage in the "Arab street" when the burned bodies of dead Americans were mutilated in Fallujah or—it seems—when a captive American civilian was beheaded by al-Qaeda terrorists. Nor, in years past, were there demonstrations in the streets in other Arab countries calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whose tortures and murders dwarfed any abuses by Americans in Iraq.
The governments of most Middle East countries abuse and repress their own citizens to varying degrees, and have few mechanisms to redress abuses. Citizens of those countries who act to reform their governments often find themselves censored, jailed, or worse.
These governments reflect the values and cultures in those countries. Many individuals seethe with anger at their poverty and repression, but rather than blaming their own governments or backward cultures, they blame the West instead. The most active opponents of repressive governments often are radical Islamists who want to establish even more repressive dictatorships. Many individuals in those countries give their first loyalty to a tribe, ethnic group, or religion, not to universal principles that apply to all people at all times. Outsiders are viewed at best with suspicion and at worst as worthy of nothing but painful death.
Consider attitudes in the Middle East toward arbitrary violence. The Pew Research Center found that of those surveyed in Morocco and Jordan, two moderate Arab countries, 66 and 70 percent respectively believe that suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq are justified, and 74 and 86 percent believe such bombings by Palestinians against Israelis are acceptable. Also consider attitudes in the region toward government. A survey taken last year in Iraq by Zogby International found that 37 percent of respondents thought that the United States would be the best model for a new government. But 28 percent favored Saudi Arabia and the remainder favored Syria, Iran, or Egypt. That is, 63 percent favored dictatorships.
President Bush is correct that every individual deserves freedom. He is right that a tolerant and peaceful Iraqi government and culture would be beneficial for the citizens of that country, a model for the region, and a bulwark against terrorism. But we must ask a more basic question: Are the people of Iraq and other countries in the region fit for freedom?
Any given Iraqi, Arab, or Muslim might well want to live in peace with his or her neighbors, foreign and domestic. But can we really expect limited governments that respect individual liberty and ban arbitrary force to be established in countries in which those principles are not written in the hearts and minds of enough of their citizens?
We should applaud those who risk their lives to establish such governments in their own countries and to vanquish the self-destructive attitudes of their fellow citizens or co-religionists. But we must understand that the people of these countries ultimately must create for themselves modern, civil societies and governments in their own cultural and historical contexts. If we fail to appreciate the limits of our ability as Americans—the outsiders—to transform dysfunctional countries, we will only slow rather than hasten the day of those countries' true liberation.