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Paternalism and Abu Ghraib

Why should Iraqis react any differently to the prisoner-abuse pictures than Americans did to the Falluja mutilations?

12:00 AM, May 11, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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PRESIDENT BUSH is fond of implying that anyone who questions whether or not liberal democracy is compatible with the radical Islam prevalent in much of the Middle East is a racist.

As the president noted last week, "There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily--are a different color than white can self-govern."

One suspects that Bush is taking aim at paternalism and mislabeling it racism. What he seems to mean is that just because America is a liberal democracy doesn't mean that we should expect a culture that looks different to react differently than we do on fundamental principles. People are people and we're all God's children. Fair enough.

Yet the administration's reaction to the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal has been nothing if not paternalistic. On May 5, just days after the scandal broke, Bush rushed onto two Arab television networks, Al Arabiya and Alhurra. He apologized (or nearly apologized) to the people of Iraq for the behavior of the American abusers. Then he went on pleading with his audience to understand that these abusers are not indicative of the rest of America.

"I want to tell the people of the Middle East that the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don't represent America. They represent the actions of a few people," Bush told Al Arabiya.

"They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know. . . . The America I know has sent troops to Iraq to promote freedom--good, honorable citizens that are helping the Iraqis every day," he told Alhurra.

"They do not reflect--the actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people," he continued later in the interview. "The American people are just as appalled at what they have seen on TV as the Iraqi citizens are. The Iraqi citizens must understand that."

Still later, Bush hit his message again: "And it's--it is unpleasant for Americans to see that some citizens, some soldiers have acted this way, because it does--again, I keep repeating, but it's true--it doesn't reflect how we think. This is not America."

THE PRESIDENT seemed greatly concerned with how not only Iraqis, but the wider Arab world, would view the abuse. "I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike," Bush told Al Arabiya. "I think the average citizen will say, this isn't a country that I've been told about."

Feeling that he had perhaps not gone far enough, Bush extended himself further the next day saying, "I told [Jordan's King Abdullah II] I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."

If President Bush is apologizing not just to Iraqis, but to Jordanians--and remember, in Jordan, actual torture is a matter of policy--then it's clear that he's worried that the Abu Ghraib pictures will inflame the Arab world against Americans. Perhaps this worry is well founded.

So it is worth considering another famous set of pictures to come out of Iraq recently. At the end of March, Iraqis in Falluja ambushed a group of Americans. They killed them and mutilated their bodies--burning, dismembering, and then hanging them from a bridge. The men and boys who carried out these acts smiled and danced for joy in front of cameras. (For some reason these pictures have disappeared down the memory hole and are now hard to find. You can see some of them here and here.)

When these images became public in America, there was no condemnation of the Iraqi people. There was no concern that American citizens might view the wider Iraqi public as savages or evildoers. There was no worry about repercussions throughout the Western world.