Prepare for the worst of Abu Ghraib.

A wartime lexicon.
June 14 2004 4:46 PM

A Moral Chernobyl

Prepare for the worst of Abu Ghraib.

In a recent public debate, so I was told, an American officer referred to the Abu Ghraib scandal as a "moral Chernobyl." You might think that this was overstating matters, even if in one important sense—because Chernobyl was morally an accident, albeit in some ways a "systemic" one—it is actually understating them.

But get ready. It is going to get much worse. The graphic videos and photographs that have so far been shown only to Congress are, I have been persuaded by someone who has seen them, not likely to remain secret for very long. And, if you wonder why formerly gung-ho rightist congressmen like James Inhofe ("I'm outraged more by the outrage") have gone so quiet, it is because they have seen the stuff and you have not. There will probably be a slight difficulty about showing these scenes in prime time, but they will emerge, never fear. We may have to start using blunt words like murder and rape to describe what we see. And one linguistic reform is in any case already much overdue. The silly word "abuse" will have to be dropped. No law or treaty forbids "abuse," but many conventions and statutes, including our own and the ones we have urged other nations to sign, do punish torture—which is what we are talking about here at a bare minimum.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, is out in paperback.
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So far, the press has focused on the questions "who knew" and "how far up did it go?" I'm equally interested in the question of how far down it has gone and how widespread it is. As Seymour Hersh has pointed out, the original imperative for harsh measures came from a Defense Department, and by extension a White House, that was under intense pressure to get results in the battle against al-Qaida and felt itself hampered by nervous lawyers. Almost the whole of public opinion is complicit in this, as is shown by the fury over the administration's failure to pre-empt the Sept. 11 assault: a pre-emption that would almost certainly have involved some corner-cutting in the interrogation room.

Many, many people must have fantasized about getting Osama Bin Laden into some version of an orange jumpsuit and then shackling him for a while to the wrong end of a large pig. It's not very far from that mass reverie to "Hey, Mustapha, you're gonna get to really know this porker" and similar or worse depravities. So in a distressing sense—of course you can all write to me if you like and say that you never even thought about it—we face something like a collective responsibility, if not exactly a collective guilt.

However, this very voyage to the pits may be of some moral use. Nobody has yet even suggested that the disgusting saturnalia in Abu Ghraib produced any "intelligence" worth the name or switched off any "ticking bomb." How could it? It was trashily recreational. But this doesn't relieve the security forces of democratic countries from their sworn responsibility to protect us—yes us, the very people who demand results but don't especially want to know the full price of our protection.

I have a historical example to offer. In the early 1970s, there was a gigantic scandal in England over the torture of Irish Republican detainees. (Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times, deserves credit for printing the facts in spite of immense government pressure not to do so—or not to do so without being accused of "helping the terrorists.") The resulting outrage led to a commission of inquiry chaired by a judge named Sir Edmund Compton. His report took a dim view of some of the methods used but said that these did not amount to "torture," at least in most cases, because those inflicting them had not derived any pleasure from doing so. At the time, I thought this must be some kind of a sick joke, perhaps derived from Monty Python or the rigors of English boarding school. ("I didn't really enjoy it, Sir." "Oh well, that's all right, then. Carry on, Perkins.") However, the government did tell the army to stop it, and it pretty much did stop, and the terrorists didn't win.

They didn't win because their idea of bombing a large Protestant community into joining a united Catholic Ireland was a bit mad to begin with. And they also didn't win because security methods became tremendously more professional. Skill, in these matters, depends on taking pains and not on inflicting them. You make the chap go through his story several times, preferably on video, and then you ask his friends a huge number of tedious questions, and then you go through it all again to check for discrepancies, and then you watch the first (very boring and sexless) video all over once more, and then you make him answer all the same questions and perhaps a couple of new and clever ones. If you have got the wrong guy—and it does happen—you let him go and offer him a ride home and an apology. And you know what? It often works. Only a lazy and incompetent dirtbag looks for brutal shortcuts so that he can get off his shift early. And sometimes, gunmen and bombers even have changes of heart, as well as mind.

Yes, but what about the ticking bomb? Listen: There's always going to be a ticking bomb somewhere. Some of these will go off, and it's just as likely to be in my part of Washington, D.C., as anywhere else. But we shall be fighting a war against jihad for decades to come. And the jihadists will continue to make big mistakes based on their mad theory. And they are not superhuman: They can be infiltrated, bribed, and turned. You don't have to tell them what time of day it is, or where they are, or when the next meal will be served. (Though it must be served.) But you must not bring in that pig or that electrode. That way lies madness and corruption and the extraction of junk confessions. So even if law and principle didn't enter into the question, we sure as hell know what doesn't work. The cranky Puritan voice of Sir Edmund Compton comes back to me down the corridor of the years: If it gives anyone pleasure, then you are doing it wrong and doing wrong into the bargain.

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