Enter the new kind of ugly American
Sunday, May 09, 2004
I miss the old ugly American. The overweight tourist with a camera and Bermuda shorts. The busload of people who could be ignorant and rude but were generally good-hearted and harmless.
The new ugly American is a new kind of ugly. Like the old version, the new ugly American reflects the worst parts of the United States.
As a global stereotype, we're no longer just big tourists with happy fistfuls of souvenirs. We're prison guards with a mean streak.
We've taken on values and behaviors that don't honor the country we've known and loved.
The old ugly American was a peacetime stereotype, travelers hurrying through European cathedrals like they were shopping malls. Though we didn't all wear the shorts, we wore the stereotype. Few of us know how to slow down, or appreciate things we can't buy.
The new ugly American is a wartime caricature, a coed fraternity of military jailers humiliating Iraqis and laughing about it.
We don't all wear the uniform, but my God. There we are.
We'd heard about possible abuses by Americans of prisoners and detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq for a long time. The abstract allegations were easy to shrug off as the hand-wringing of people with overly romantic ideas about war; of human-rights advocates who won't be happy until every prison in the world has nightly turn-down service.
The photographs stopped us cold. Here were Americans taking pleasure out of humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners: putting people on leashes, stacking them naked in pyramids, taunting them sexually. Strikingly, these images were more disturbing than the photographs of Americans and Iraqis killing each other.
Killing people is part of the job of war. Humiliating them is a choice.
The choice reflects poorly on our national character. And it's why these pictures are so terribly ugly.
They show the inevitable debasement that occurs in war. They show how people under pressure can turn into sadists and criminals -- even when they start out as nice enough kids from America.
But mostly, the photos show in full color how our leaders' attitudes about the rule of law play out in real life.
The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has scoffed at the Geneva Conventions and other international laws regarding the treatment of prisoners and detainees. The White House considers many of these laws pesky and irrelevant.
The Defense Department has locked one U.S. citizen in military detention for two years without charges after his arrest in Chicago. President Bush called this man a "bad guy." The government has yet to make a case against him.
Above all, Bush officials have said they need flexibility. The world is too complicated and dangerous for bureaucratic rules and sissy international standards, they've implied. They'd decide how many rights to grant to people on a case-by-case basis. They'd treat foreigners based on expedience.
The ugly truth? At the Abu Ghraib prison, the military jailers were just following orders.
President Bush has apologized. So have Rumsfeld and other members of Bush's inner circle. The president, in particular, seems deeply upset. He says the dishonorable acts do not reflect our national character.
But the pictures of Americans shown around the world will get uglier.
"Apparently the worst is yet to come," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday. "There are a lot more pictures and many investigations under way. . . . If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse. I looked at them last night, and they're hard to believe. Be on notice."
Bush and Rumsfeld have tried to put this shameful situation in a good light, saying a full investigation would show American democracy in action.
But the truth is, Rumsfeld has sat on this information since January. He admitted he didn't take the allegations of abuse or the concerns of human-rights groups seriously. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally intervened to try to keep the CBS network from airing the photographs. Bush found out by watching television.
This is a digital snapshot of an administration uninterested in basic human dignity -- or in information that would help everyone do a better job.
This reflects on all of us. It is not who we are, but it's the ugly image we're projecting to the world, made more painful by the truth.
Associate editor Susan Nielsen: 503-221-8153; email@example.com