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"We Only Torture the Bad Guys"

02/27/2006 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The first photos from Abu Ghraib prison were released in 2003, and much of America has done its best to forget them. Now that a new batch has surfaced, the administration is wheeling out its old excuses about enlisted personnel acting on their own, the need to stop showing the photos lest they inflame violence around the world, and so on. In truth, not only was Abu Ghraib torture deeply immoral--and obviously planned by those in charge--but suppressing the photos is just as immoral.

It's as if the U.S. had dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima but didn't want anyone to see what it caused. The point of showing the horrors of Hiroshima to the world was to stir global conscience about never using nuclear weapons again. (I doubt that common citizens in Arab countries who are gleeful about the Islamic bomb have ever seen those sickening photos--they should.) The point of Abu Ghraib is the same. The U.S. should never condone torture again. The world should never forget that we used it here, and in a just society there would have been an immediate vote of no-confidence in the government that condones torture.

Instead, what we get is the self-justifying words "We only torture the bad guys." What makes this argument self-justifying is that someone is usually defined as "bad" because they were tortured in the first place; it's a label that covers all manner of sins. The administration is using the same reasoning over surveillance. If you call someone in the Middle East and we monitored you, you must be a suspicious character.

Of course, this is a tricky issue. There are Arab sympathizers of Al Qaida living in the U.S. , and one gets the impression that a casual sympathy may be the norm rather than the exception among Arab-Americans. But the administration is aggressively pursuing the erosion of human rights and humane values. They don't seem to be the people one would trust in delicate situations. The reality is that when a society is tempted to snoop and torture, cast suspicion and engender fear, the right people for the job show up. Clearly President Bush has surrounded himself with such people, forgetting that when civilization is at peril, the snoopers and torturers are the last ones that should be called upon. They constitute a risk to civilization on their own and a deep offense to morality that this generation of Americans will have to live with for a long time. Abu Ghraib is their My Lai.