Of that peculiarly harrowing and heinous murder, Andrew Sullivan writes:
Listening to the hooded coward shriek on that video and reading what he says can only remind us that these people are a) vile, b) as alien to true Islam as the KKK was to the Gospels, c) pathetic and d) dumb. They think they terrify us by this? The gang-murder of an unarmed, innocent civilian? And they think that it will add to the shame of Abu Ghraib, demoralize Americans still further, and prompt a withdrawal? In fact, of course, the Berg beheading does a grim but salutary service. In the midst of our own deserved self-criticism, we are suddenly reminded of the larger stakes, the wider war, why we are in Iraq in the first place. Most Americans do not in any way excuse Abu Ghraib, but also see that any sort of moral equivalence between our flawed democracy and Islamism's pathological hatred is obscene.
Well, all of this is true (though I don’t think it should be any part of public policy to adjudicate on what represents ‘true Islam’, and I wish writers outside the Angry Left could agree to restrict use of the adjective ‘obscene’ to sexual contexts). But I don’t think it addresses why the cause of regime change is going badly and how our side may more effectively pursue it.
Of course there’s no moral equivalence between us and them. More to the point, we don’t owe any apologies to the Arab world for the scandalous treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But we do owe an apology to another constituency, of far greater significance. In the Wall Street Journal today, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University argues the point thus:
We have stumbled in Abu Ghraib. But the logic of Abu Ghraib isn't the logic of the Iraq war. We should be able to know the Arab world as it is. We should see through the motives of those in Cairo and Amman and Ramallah and Jeddah, now outraged by Abu Ghraib, who looked away from the terrors of Iraq under the Baathists. Our account is with the Iraqi people: It is their country we liberated, and it is their trust that a few depraved men and women, on the margins of a noble military expedition, have violated. We ought to give the Iraqis the best thing we can do now, reeling as we are under the impact of Abu Ghraib -- give them the example of our courts and the transparency of our public life. What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands.
These are wise observations, especially with regard to the example we may set with our commitment to the rule of law. This is an issue that we have to accept has not been taken seriously enough by the US administration in its just war against terror.
There is of course a type of frivolous complainant who has never understood that the western democracies are at war with totalitarianism. My favourite (if that is the right word) example of moral idiocy in this context was provided by the septuagenarian anti-nuclear campaigner Bruce Kent in the New Statesman shortly after 9/11. This, in full, is his recommended course of action against the theocratic terror that killed 3000 civilians in a single morning:
First, the United Nations must ratify the ten different terrorist conventions that have previously been vetoed by the United States. Second, we should try Osama Bin Laden in absentia in an international court, or even set up an ad-hoc court pending the start of international criminal court proceedings. I think we need to pursue Bin Laden in different ways: for example, by blocking communications to Afghanistan. I would even go as far as combing through bank accounts across the world and freezing anything suspicious.
You read that right. In these dark times, the erstwhile Monsignor would even open a bank statement that wasn’t addressed to him.
Only an inveterate ideologue - the politest euphemism I can find for ‘bigot’ – would suppose that the US administration would be adequately discharging its duties to its own citizens by trying bin Laden in absentia as opposed to killing him and overthrowing the regimes that sponsor terror. But the free world has other duties as well, and Ajami puts in its proper context the duty we have to uphold legal process, first in Iraq but elsewhere too.
The war we fight is one that will probably last decades. What are initially designed as emergency measures may therefore last indefinitely. The inevitable abridgements of liberty that our military campaign requires are not sufficiently well-designed to allow us to maintain the appearance – and reality – of fairness and due process in that fight, over that time. The more I hear of Abu Ghraib, the less hopeful I become that these are isolated abuses, and the more seriously I take the complaints that the incarceration of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo – and indeed in detention centres elsewhere in the world – is insufficiently transparent.
Non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International made themselves look ridiculous earlier in the Iraq controversy by (in the first case) massively overreaching its competence in order to pronounce on the justification for war, and (in the second) complaining that the British government was publicising Saddam’s human rights abuses. But they – and more particularly the Red Cross, whose warnings were plainly not treated with the weight they merited – have an important role to play now. It is essential that the US administration order a formal system of inspections of detention centres, in which the NGOs should be involved, establish a code of rights for prisoners, and provide for judicial review in cases of terrorist suspects.
(I should add, in passing, an answer to one of my regular correspondents, who asked my position on the role of torture in interrogation. I do not agree with the view of Alan Dershowitz that we should consider bringing within the law the use of physical pressure on suspects. My objection is not morally absolutist but pragmatic. If we use torture, we will get confessions. In fact we will be inundated with confessions, whether or not the suspect is guilty of what he confesses to. On consequentialist grounds, the price paid for the occasional – and, in those circumstances, concealed – nugget of information will be far too high in the damage to the public legitimacy of our campaign and the brutalising of our society.)
This is not a justification for the school of Facile Civil-Libertarianism. The counterinsurgency war our side is fighting in Iraq is vital to our security and Iraqis’ liberty; the security measures we take at home are a price we have to pay for our own protection. But we are losing that war – not because the terrorist insurgents are inflicting massive damage on our forces, but because in important respects we have failed the people whose liberation we are responsible for, and the statesmen who courageously took the decision to overthrow Baathist totalitarianism by force have been severely damaged in public esteem.
I want those leaders – Blair, Bush and Howard/Downer – to continue governing. I admire their willingness to do what is right in spite of the resulting unpopularity. But their ability to communicate the principles of liberty is not high (though Blair is a partial exception), and we must fight on the ideological as well as military front. That front has been neglected - and we have suffered grievous setbacks.