Columns » Ernest Dumas

The two George W.'s


History should be turned to for wisdom, not solace. If you wonder how your government could run so badly amok when it has for all its history been a beacon to the world on human rights, a good place to go is David Hackett Fischer’s magnificent new history, “Washington’s Crossing.” It affords a sorrowful comparison between the first George W., who crossed the Delaware, and the second, whose closest exploit was to cross the Tigris in the night to be filmed serving a fake turkey to the troops. The liberal media does not give us much cause in the United States to be uncomfortable about how we treat what the administration calls “enemy combatants” but lurid accounts of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the secret detention and mental destruction of men suspected of being enemies of the United States have riveted much of the rest of the world, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. They are a big source of America’s crumbling image as the exemplar of human rights. The Geneva Convention, which regulates the treatment of prisoners of war, is considered “quaint” and outmoded by the Bush administration — that is the famous description in a policy memo passed through the president’s lawyer and now his nominee to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general. It authorized mental and physical torture and death threats as long as death was not imminent and the pain did not reach that which accompanies organ failure. America is now facing a different, more brutal and immoral enemy than nations ever faced before, the administration says in justification of its more flexible handling of captives. The old civil standards just won’t keep nations safe from the religious extremists who will kill and blow themselves up to serve Allah. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and the other bleeding-heart humanitarian groups that used to file nasty reports on communist regimes, Iraq or Latin American tyrants don’t understand that. But, you see, all of this human-rights stuff started with the United States. It was the U. S. Congress in the 1970s that insisted that nations meet human rights standards as a condition of U.S. aid. Actually, it began with General Washington, who was sickened by the systematic torture of captive revolutionary soldiers, who were brutalized, shot, beheaded, quartered and their corpses mutilated by British troops and Hessian mercenaries, who, as combatants nearly always do in war, had come to see their foes as subhuman. By contemporary accounts they make Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s bloodthirsty men in Iraq look halfway humane. Washington had reports of hundreds of American militiamen tied to trees and bayoneted or, after being brutalized, lined up by the scores and shot through the head. On Nov. 16, 1776, peering across the river from the Jersey Palisades with his telescope, Washington watched as many of the 2,800 Americans killed in the final battle for New York were put to the sword after surrendering. General Washington turned aside and began to sob, according to aides, “with the tenderness of a child.” Washington vowed that Americans would be different and he ordered that all prisoners be treated humanely. He issued a broadside that prisoners, especially the Hessians, who were the most brutal in the slaughter of revolutionaries, should be treated humanely and not as enemies. After the battle of Princeton, Washington ordered one of his officers to take charge of 211 British privates. “Treat them with humanity,” he directed, “and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren. . . . Provide everything necessary for them on the road.” That became the policy of the Revolution and of the new nation, articulated most eloquently by John Adams. The accounts of British barbarities toward prisoners “harrow me beyond Description,” he wrote. “Piety, Humanity, Honesty” would be forever U.S. policy. War was to be conducted with humanity and consideration for individual rights, in accordance with the values of the American Revolution itself. One of the first acts of Congress after Washington took office as president in 1789 was the Alien Tort Claims Act, which human-rights victims have used ever since to hold people accountable for crimes against humanity and which even now bedevils the Bush administration as it tries in court to hide prisoners in solitary confinement without end without charges or elementary justice accorded by our own and international law. Washington’s and America’s example in 1776 illumined all our history and has been a shining light for humanity. Now, such idealism is quaint and outmoded, unsuited for a struggle against Muslim fanatics. Let Fischer deal with that in the closing words of “Washington’s Crossing”: “Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit — and so are we.”

Add a comment