Columns » Ernest Dumas

Catchphrases and the rule of law


If we dare believe our senses, the revelations of torture and murder by GIs in Iraq have forced President Bush for the first time to glimpse the terrible frontier where he has brought the country. Reality seems to have intruded cruelly into the narrative of the adventure movie in which Bush thought he was starring. As he floundered with apologies and promises of justice, the smirk that always played around his eyes and lips even on the most solemn occasions had vanished. But the best evidence was that the eternal slogan about "the enemies of freedom and democracy" was gone. That may be a fleeting omission but it is a reason for hope. From Sept. 11 forward, Bush always referred to the people the U.S. was fighting as the enemies of freedom or, on other occasions, the enemies of liberty or of democracy. They hate us because of the liberties we enjoy, he said. "They are offended by our existence as a free nation." That may even be true of Saddam Hussein and it is surely useful propaganda in raising the will to fight, although we may be seeing the rueful consequences in the prisons of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the youngster in the cell despises freedom, what value is there in treating him humanely? We may never know whether George Bush actually believed the catchphrase he repeated on every occasion where the war came up, from the State of the Union to photo ops, or whether he merely appreciated the simplicity of it or its potential to inspire. But it dangerously misstated what the conflict with terrorists and the hundreds of millions of Muslims who sympathize with them is all about. If the president was right, the 18 men who flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the tens of thousands of poor young men who have blown themselves up or thrown themselves in the way of the American juggernaut in Iraq did so because they wanted to be enslaved or feared being given the civil liberties guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights such as free speech and protection from cruel and inhuman punishment and star-chamber justice. Or else they despised the idea of being given some control over their destiny, which democracy implies. Does that make sense? What they hate and fear about America may be just as irrational, but it has always been clear just what it is. It is religion and culture and it is the Western presence in their lands and the potential for domination. It is the humiliation of Western power. Osama bin Laden began his jihad owing to the American military presence in the Muslim holy lands, U.S. support of Israel's control over Palestinian lands and, before that, its support of secular Arab regimes like Saddam Hussein's. President Bush seems finally to recognize the reality and even the existence of some humanity on the other side. He apologized for the cruelty and the humiliation of Arabs in the custody of Americans. You have to assume that the words were genuine and not intended merely to thwart the rising fury in the whole Arab world. Like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon generals, Bush still insists that the barbarity is limited to a handful of sadistic enlisted men and women in one Army Reserve unit based in a Maryland town, but it is the recognition of the situation and the stakes that is important, even if it is tragically late. If Bush has indeed experienced some humility, maybe he can recognize, too, what his lack of respect for the law has done to bring the country to this awful place. We cannot know for sure whether the entire Bush administration's defiance of international law and U.S. and Western legal traditions infected the soldiers who were put in charge of the thousands of detainees in American and British custody in the Middle East, but it created a culture that allowed baser impulses to flourish. Even before the unfolding news of widespread barbarity in military compounds, our standing in the world of law, where the United States has always borne the standard, had sunk to the pits. Even the British, whose record now is sullied, too, condemned the United States. The infringements on civil liberties on our own soil, the president's declarations that none of the protections of international or domestic law, including the Geneva Conventions, would govern treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Bush's declaration that the United States would be exempt from the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to punish military atrocities and genocide, has made a mockery of our professed adoration of the rule of law. "Any sign of weakness or retreat simply validates terrorist violence," Bush said early this year, and he clearly thought adherence to legal conventions with such evil foes was such a sign. Perhaps he sees now the awful fruits of that disregard.

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