How we need to respond to Abu Ghraib

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I was going to have my initial post at Parablemania be a nice little levelheaded piece about "seeking a healthy balance". But then I read the news for the first time in about a week (I've had finals and the stomach flu), heard about Abu Ghraib, and my blood got boiling. I have something to say and it needs to be said now, so so much for my nice levelheaded first post. (I guess that tells you something about me as a blogger, for what it's worth.)

tacitus via Matthew Yglesias.

Tacitus suggests, among other things, that the US Army disband the 372nd Military Police Company, as punishment for the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. Matthew Yglesias thinks that the suggestion is a good one.

I think that it is a good start, but doesn't go far enough.

One of Matthew Yglesias' commenters points out that while this will certainly sent our troops the message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated, it may be a bit too "inside baseball" to get that message to the rest of the world, Iraqis in particular, who in my opinion could possibly see that as being too much of a wrist slap and not enough of a real punishment.

So what should be done? May I suggest that those involved be considered war criminals? Or even better, terrorists? And then we should try them and treat them as such. That would show the world that we truly do not tolerate this s**t.

Moreover, it is not enough to disclaim knowledge of the events and assure the world that torture was isolated and sporadic in nature. Nobody seriously thinks that and the Army brass isn't going to convince anyone with that story. What needs to happen is that the Army brass, or even better--the White House, needs to say "This is a real and serious problem, and we are going to root it out, right here, right now, in full view of the world." Then they need to find everyone who was involved in this kind of activity--and they really have to want to find all of the perps--and punish them as harshly as the law allows (hence my call to have them charged as war criminals or terrorists).

Do I think any of this is likely? No. But it is what I think needs to be done if we really are serious about "winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people". Only by us taking as much, or more offense at the injustices done them, and demanding maximum (legal) punishment, can we ever convince the people of Iraq that our military is in their country for their good more than ours.

We have a very short window of opportunity to do this right before it is too little, too late. I really think that is our last chance to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. I will be deeply ashamed of our country and military if the right response is discarded in favor if CYOA.

[Updated to strike out the suggestion to have the perps charged with terrorism. I can't really find a way to make these crimes fit that bill. I suggested it because that is pretty much the worst thing we can charge someone with as our laws currently stand (as far as I can tell), and I wanted our response to show that we could not take this any more seriously. But if it doesn't fit, then we shouldn't charge them with it.]

UPDATE: I ran across this article. It seemed like a normal news report without much new information. But in the middle of the article are these two paragraphs:

White House officials disclosed that Bush was made aware in late December or early January about allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad .

On Tuesday, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made statements condemning the abuse, saying the president had demanded that those responsible be held accountable.

Wait...What???!!!!? The White House has known about this for five months??!?!!?! Bush demanded that the responsible parties be held responsible and only now have they (whoever "they" are) gotten around to charging six people with crimes and reprimanding six more???? What the heck is going on? Can any else confirm that the White House has known this for five months?

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What To Do About Abu Ghraib from The Greater Nomadic Council on May 5, 2004 10:43 AM

This post at Parablemania has some good suggestions on how to handle the troops who tortured Iraqi prisoners. He also thinks this is "our last chance to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people." I'm inclined to agree.... Read More


The war criminal label seems apt, especially if we're going to insist that we are at war and not just pursuing crime-fighting actions against terrorists. I'm with you on that one.

I'm not convinced by the terrorism label. How would you define 'terrorism' such that this is terrorism? As far as I can figure, the central element of terrorism is that the immediate victim isn't the final, intended victim. You could be committing the crime for ransom money, for political goals, to strike back at someone who will be hurt by seeing loved ones suffering, and so on. The immediate harm is to someone else, however, to achieve that purpose. I don't see that here. It's not as if the humiliation of these prisoners-of-war was being broadcast to other enemy soldiers/terrorists.

There are specific definitions for crimes of war; if the actions at Abu Ghraib fit, the actors should be prosecuted, of course. But you can't just consider them "criminals" (to say nothing of "terrorists," which has no legal definition) without going through the due process of actually trying and convicting these folks. I think your suggestions are premature.

My own suggestions are meant to circumvent this somewhat, inasmuch as they are meant to be options available without any judicial or legal process.

Jeremy - I wrote while hot headed. There aren't good reasons to charge them with terrorism. But wanted to charge them with that because that is (as far as I can tell) the charge that will signal to the world that we take this as seriously as the Iraqis do. And we would be able to punish them more harshly as terrorists under current law (if I understand our current justice system correctly).

"It's not as if the humiliation of these prisoners-of-war was being broadcast to other enemy soldiers/terrorists." But the crimes committed against these prisoners were known to other prisoners. It could be argued that some prisoners were tortured to gain the compliance of the. As such it might count as terrorism. It would be a fairly large stretch, and not terribly defensible. I withdraw the suggestion.

[note: I've updated the post to strike out the terrorism charge suggestion.]

Tacitus - I wholeheartedly support your suggestions and think that they should be implemented post haste. I just hope that it doesn't stop there.

You are right, due process needs to be followed. But the authorities can announce immediately what charges they are bringing against those whom they have arrested. Those charges should include War Crimes. They should not simply be suspended or held for questioning or reprimanded. Authorities must not merely open normal criminal investigations. All of that signals "business as usual", and business as usual too often ends with "slap-on-the-wrist".

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