What Happened to The Iraqi Shoe Thrower?

01/28/2009 08:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With five days to go until the Inauguration, I realized I had been reduced to hoping that my President and my government were incompetent. The alternative was far worse.

The New York Times was reporting that Muntader al-Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at outgoing President Bush, had not been heard from for over a month, despite repeated entreaties by his family and his lawyer. Worst of all, the last article to feature Mr. al-Zaidi before he vanished was titled: Iraqi Journalist Who Threw Shoes at Bush Was Tortured in Jail, His Brother Says.

So, what was I to think? Was it really conceivable that the United States' influence had fallen so far in Iraq that we were incapable of saving one of the most high-profile political prisoners from suffering what the New York Times described as "bruising that covered the reporter's face and body, but was especially severe on his legs and arms; a missing tooth; a gash on the bridge of his nose; and what appeared to be a burn mark on his ear."

If the United States had had the power to intervene and had failed to exercise it, what could have stayed our hand? Even if our leaders were blind to the humanity of anyone they saw as deserving the epithet of 'enemy,' they should have been moved by basic pragmatism. Allowing torture of such a high-profile prisoner, who had committed an essentially non-violent crime was as good as writing the jihadi's press releases for them. Were we really that politically tone-deaf?

I hoped so.

For, if our leaders had reflected even briefly on the public relations nightmare they'd unleash or considered, in a passing moment, the horror of torturing a man for making a political statement and had still held back from exercising our influence, the only possible explanation was that our leaders were morally abhorrent.

Without investigations and subpoenas, we may never know whether Bush and his subordinates were mercifully incompetent or terrifyingly unhinged. But the ongoing suffering of Mr. al-Zaidi makes it clear that we will be working to root out the poisonous systems of injustice and torture that Bush and his collaborators have instituted.

This week, we rightly laud President Barack Obama for beginning the process of closing Guantanamo Bay. But Mr. al-Zaidi will still be imprisoned. Bush's legacy lives on in the countless failures of leadership, the willful inaction, and the sheer indifference that allowed Mr. al-Zaidi to be tortured and imprisoned on our watch and on our authority. Removing this taint will require investigations and hearings to discover how many al-Zaidi's are still waiting in the darkness. Counting ourselves satisfied simply with dismantling the most visible sign of Bush's abuses is a crime of inaction. Not to investigate and uncover the quotidian abuses of the last eight years is an act of moral cowardice. If we won no other victory on November 4th, let it be this: incompetence is no longer an excuse.

Now, the real fight begins.