This morning, Americans awoke to celebrate a national holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who promoted nonviolent resistance in response to injustice. They celebrated the holiday mostly by turning over in bed and going back to sleep.
In Iraq, the situation is much different. On the streets of Iraq, the sentencing of Army specialist Charles Graner has provoked a new wave of anger and outrage at the Americans who have invaded and occupied the country for almost two years. "When Saddam created the mass graves, we thought that it was a savage thing," one Iraqi told an American reporter. "'But when we saw the Americans and what they have done at Abu Ghraib, I was astonished because America came here carrying slogans of freedom and democracy."
The Bush Administration has called Charles Graner the "ringleader" of the widespread practice of torture against Iraqis held at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison. During his prosecution, the facts were made plain. Charles Graner tortured prisoners over and over again. Graner sexually humiliated prisoners as well, stacking them naked on top of each other, forcing them to masturbate while American soldiers and other prisoners watched. Witnesses testified against him. Photographs of him in the process of committing acts of torture were shown. Graner's only defense was that he was ordered by officers to torture the Iraqis under his guard.
Graner's crime is serious because his actions did much more than just subject Iraqi prisoners - many of whom were later released without being charged for any crime - to pain and humiliation. Graner's program of torture and sexual abuse has been a prime element in the strengthening of the Iraqi rebellion against American occupation in 2004. Graner's torture of Iraqi prisoners cost American lives. Yet, when asked if he has any remorse for committing the crime of torture, Graner has only offered a passive denial of personal responsibility: "Bad things happen," he told prosecutors, smiling.
In spite of the seriousness of Graner's crimes, and in spite of his lack of remorse, the American military has decided to show him a surprising amount of leniency. Graner had a third of his prison sentence removed - without explanation.
Many Iraqis are saying that Graner deserved a much, much worse punishment. They say that Graner deserved to be tortured, to be kept in prison for life, or to be executed. They are wrong. Inhumanity must not be repaid with inhumanity. However, when it comes to war crimes like those of Charles Graner, a sentence of the maximum term prison applied to such cases is not too much to expect.
The real problem, of course, is not just this one light sentence. Graner's sentence is just one instance in a disturbing pattern of extraordinary leniency for soldiers who commit outrageous war crimes.
Sergeant Tracy Perkins was recently convicted of ordering an Iraqi man thrown off a bridge into the Tigris River after the man was severely beaten by Perkins's men. The man drowned. During the trial, Perkins admitted that the Iraqi had committed no crime. Yet, in spite of the fact that witnesses stated that Perkins had ordered many other Iraqis to be thrown from a high bridge into the river, his military judges gave him a prison term of only six months out of the 11 years that was the maximum penalty.
Just a few weeks before, another American soldier, who killed a wounded, unarmed civilian boy rather than provide the boy with medical care, received a mere three years in prison. In many cases, especially when it comes to the officers who have supervised war crimes enacted by enlisted soldiers, there has been no prosecution and no punishment at all.
With the case of Charles Graner the United States government is, once again, sending mixed signals to American soldiers - and to the world. The signal is that torture of prisoners is a crime, but not one that that military command takes very seriously. The world may well interpret Graner's less-than-strict sentence as an embrace of the policy of torture by the American government. American soldiers may learn the lesson that torture of prisoners is okay, so long as no one gets caught.
The American military justice system, like the Bush Adminisration, has demonstrated that it has a tin ear when it comes to world opinion. Of course, some say that world opinion doesn't matter. They'll say that the only thing that matters in a war is how many of "the enemy" we kill. However, when the Republicans in Washington D.C. have declared a vague war against "terror", the enemy is defined only as anyone who hates the United States enough to take up arms. So, when American soldiers are allowed, and even encourage to engage in acts that encourage more widespread hatred of the United States, they are creating hordes of new enemies faster than the American military could ever hope to kill them.
We expect that, in reaction to this article, many Republicans will raise shrill voices of complaint that we are even discussing this issue. They'll invoke the "Support Our Troops" mantra that has become a convenient cover for Americans' apathy and willfull ignorance about the war crimes being committed in their names. They'll question whether any Iraqi who has been taken prisoner and treated roughly, or killed, could possibly be innocent.
These Republican apologists for torture are missing the point. Whether or not one supports the invasion and occupation of Iraq, one ought to oppose the torture there. In addition to being a war crime and an violation of basic human decency, torture is a stupendous tactical blunder. When our soldiers commit acts of torture, they make our enemies stronger. American torture plays into the hands of Osama Bin Laden and other anti-American militants, because American torture confirms the worst anti-American propaganda any terrorist could hope to create.
Adapted into Bushspeak, the lesson boils down to this: In the War on Terror, you're either against torture, or you're with the enemy.
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