TO EVOKE THE language of an earlier misbegotten war, at the heart of George W. Bush’s Iraqi adventure is a bright and shining lie: the idea that we could build a stable, democratic country in the very center of the turbulent Middle East. But unlike Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, this was a lie in which the White House fervently believed.
Sadly, as we have now learned, and as we always should have known, war is no way to carry out social work, not just because the objects of one’s good intentions end up getting killed, but because war can bring out in some of those who fight shockingly ugly and disturbing behavior.
Last week, CBS’s 60 Minutes II reported on horrifying tales of abuse at Saddam Hussein’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers and private contractors have been accused of torturing Iraqi detainees by raping them with objects, forcing them to simulate oral sex and to masturbate in front of female soldiers, beating them, and making them stand in precarious positions for long stretches by falsely telling them they would be electrocuted if they moved. Forcing POWs to perform sexually degrading acts is abhorrent and a violation of international law under the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, such acts are contrary to the tenets of Islam, a fact that raises these abuses to an even greater level of sadistic cultural cruelty. Government officials, under pressure from Congress, announced on Tuesday that two Iraqi prisoners were killed by US soldiers last year, and that 20 other cases of inmate death and assault in Iraq and Afghanistan remain under investigation.
This week Seymour Hersh, who, not so coincidentally, won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the massacre at the Vietnamese village of My Lai a generation ago, reported in the New Yorker on the existence of an internal investigation that leaves no doubt that the handful of suspects now being questioned are mere scapegoats. At Abu Ghraib, Hersh writes, "Army regulations and the Geneva Conventions were routinely violated, and ... much of the day-to-day management of the prisoners was abdicated to Army military-intelligence units and civilian contract employees. Interrogating prisoners and getting intelligence, including by intimidation and torture, was the priority."
Much of the outraged commentary about Abu Ghraib has focused on the hatred these revelations have engendered in the Arab and Muslim world. And properly so: to evoke another Vietnam-era phrase, the war in Iraq was aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and the surrounding region. More than ever, that now seems an impossible task. But there is a deeper lesson here as well.
In his book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes a private, celebratory dinner hosted about a year ago by Vice-President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. Those attending were Cheney chief-of-staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Ken Adelman, a former government official and leading neoconservative polemicist. In Woodward’s telling, this was not an evil cabal, but, rather, a gathering of misty-eyed dreamers, genuinely excited about the prospects for a free Iraq.
And that’s precisely the problem. Evil is usually done not in the name of evil, but in the name of someone’s idea of good. From the mutilations of Fallujah to the rebellion of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, we are learning something we shouldn’t have had to be taught: the Iraqis do not appreciate our intervention, and freedom cannot be brought by foreigners bearing guns. Perhaps Abu Ghraib will teach Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz what Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk learned in the 1960s: that you can’t win hearts and minds through killing. That war, once launched, is a force unto itself, and rarely for the better. And that it can warp the human spirit in ways we find unrecognizable and repellant.
Four years ago, candidate Bush promised a foreign policy based on humility. He should have listened to himself, for it is his administration’s arrogance and recklessness that led to the events at Abu Ghraib. One shudders to think about the price we will surely pay.
GOVERNOR MITT Romney’s panel on the death penalty has performed an enormous public service. By recommending such narrow grounds for capital punishment — virtual certainty of guilt coupled with reserving death for only a handful of particularly heinous crimes — the panel has shown why it would be folly to bring back the death penalty at all (see "Freedom Watch," News & Features).
Take the provision for requiring that a jury have "no doubt" of a defendant’s guilt rather than the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Because of such scientific advances as DNA testing, it is now possible to bring more precision to questions of guilt or innocence. Yet these tests continue to be administered by human beings, who are fallible and who — in their zeal to win convictions — can sometimes yield to the temptation to enhance the evidence. "No doubt" is a perversion of the time-honored legal standard, and it suggests a degree of certainty that is just not possible.
Or consider the singling out of particular crimes as eligible for the death penalty. Inevitably, one of the crimes identified as worthy of death is the murder of a police officer, judge, lawyer, or witness. The problem with this, of course, is that it designates some lives as more valuable than others.
Fortunately, several district attorneys, including Suffolk County’s Dan Conley, Middlesex County’s Martha Coakley, and Norfolk County’s Bill Keating, have spoken out against renewing the death penalty, saying they need more resources for fighting crime, not symbolism for Romney’s national political résumé. House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate president Robert Travaglini have expressed skepticism as well.
The death penalty is a barbaric punishment from a bygone era, applied arbitrarily and subject to abuse and error. No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947. Notwithstanding Romney’s attempts to give it a futuristic gleam, capital punishment should remain part of the past.
SAME-SEX COUPLES seeking to marry won a significant victory on Tuesday, when Governor Romney’s legal adviser, Daniel Winslow, reportedly told city and town clerks that they would not be required to demand proof of residency. This was a major concession on Romney’s part, and it wouldn’t have been possible without public pressure from local officials, including Boston mayor Tom Menino.
Readers of Boston’s two daily newspapers might be confused by Menino’s stand on gay marriage. On Sunday, he was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying that he might be willing to defy Romney’s order to verify the in-state residency of same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses. On Monday, in the Boston Herald, he backed down slightly.
In fact, Menino appeared prepared to respect the rights of gay and lesbian couples without subjecting them to the grilling that Romney wanted; he simply hadn’t made a final decision on a legal strategy. And Menino wasn’t alone. According to news reports, officials in Cambridge, Northampton, Lowell, Worcester, and other communities were either considering or had already decided to follow the same procedure with same-sex couples that they use with heterosexual couples by not requiring them to produce proof of residency.
The governor’s contemptible policy rested on a 1913 law that prohibits the marriage of a nonresident couple if their marriage would be illegal in their home state. The law — passed to prevent the marriage of mixed-race couples from states with miscegenation laws on the books — was widely flouted, as it should have been in a state that prides itself on being progressive and enlightened.
Fortunately, Romney’s switch means that the law will continue to be flouted, or at least ignored. It would be better if the legislature repealed it.
Some of these local officials, Menino included, remain uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage. It is to their credit that they — unlike Romney, whose office continues to pay lip service to the 1913 law — are willing to carry out the clear instructions of the Supreme Judicial Court in its Goodridge decision and end discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.
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Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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