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A Blight Unto Nations

Bush has bounced us from the moral high ground but the press still doesn't get it.
 
 
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The U.S. news media is experiencing a cognitive meltdown as it tries to hold on to the traditional view of the United States as a beacon for human rights while facing the new reality in which George W. Bush has plunged the nation into the dark arts of torture, assassination, and "disappearances," more common in "death-squad" states.

Rarely has that disconnect been more clearly on display than on the Feb. 28 editorial page of the Washington Post . The lead editorial, entitled "Homicide Unpunished," criticizes the Bush administration for letting off U.S. interrogators implicated in murder and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the page's final editorial hails the Bush administration for demanding that the United Nations purge its human rights organization of human rights violators.

That final editorial, entitled "Prodding the U.N.," reads like something written from the not-so-distant past when the United States could credibly point fingers at nations with poor records for respecting civil liberties and human rights.

"The administration refused to accept a proposed structure for this new (U.N. human rights) body, reasonably fearing that it would protect human rights abusers rather than put pressure on them," the Post said, listing those offending nations as Zimbabwe, Sudan, China and Cuba.

The Post added that Washington should confront allies, such as Pakistan and Egypt, and tell them "that relations with the United States will be affected if they resist a serious U.N. human rights body."

The Big Elephant

Leaving aside the question of whether some of these U.S. allies have appreciably better human rights records than the countries on the Post's list, the editorial also ignores the bigger elephant in the room, whether Washington retains the moral standing to lecture anybody about respect for human rights and international law.

After all, just six inches above the editorial praising Bush's human rights position at the U.N. is the other editorial describing how the Bush administration gave only slaps on the wrist to interrogators implicated in torturing detainees to death since 2002. Indeed, the hypocrisy within this hypocrisy is that the only serious jail time has been meted out to the Abu Ghraib guards who were photographed posing Iraqi prisoners naked in humiliating postures but didn't kill anyone.

The lead Post editorial notes that Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., who supervised Pvt. Lynndie England and other guards on the Abu Ghraib night shift, did appear in one photo with a dead Iraqi prisoner, but Graner wasn't responsible for the man's murder.

Nevertheless, the sexually oriented photos of naked Iraqis had infuriated President Bush and many Americans in his Christian Right base, so Graner got 10 years in jail and seven other low-level guards, including England, also were sentenced to prison.

By contrast, the Navy SEAL and CIA interrogators who tortured to death Iraqi Manadel al-Jamadi (the victim in the Graner photo) were spared any serious punishment. On Nov. 4, 2003, the interrogators had taken turns punching and kicking Jamadi before shackling him and hanging him five feet off the floor, where he died of asphyxiation.

"Nine members of the Navy team were given 'nonjudicial punishment' by their commanding officer; the 10th, a lieutenant, was acquitted on charges of assault and dereliction of duty," the Post wrote. "None of the CIA personnel has been prosecuted. The lead interrogator, Mark Swanner, reportedly continues to work for the agency."

The Rule

The Jamadi case also wasn't an exception; it was the rule. A new report by Human Rights First documented that only 12 of 98 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody have resulted in any punishment for implicated U.S. officials. Even in the eight cases when the deaths have resulted from torture, the stiffest penalty was five months in jail.

"The report documents many of these cases in devastating detail," the Post noted. "There is, for example, the case of former Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who in November 2003 was beaten for days by Army and CIA interrogators, then stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped with electrical cord and smothered.

"The case was classified as a murder, but only one person was court-martialed, a low-level warrant officer. After arguing, plausibly, that his actions were approved by more senior officers under a policy issued by the then-commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, his punishment was to be restricted for 60 days to his home, workplace and church."

Human Rights First reported that in dozens of prisoner deaths, "grossly inadequate reporting, investigation and follow-through have left no one at all responsible for homicides and other unexplained deaths."

The Post editorial traced this pattern of brutality and neglect all the way to the top. "Commanders, starting with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and extending through the ranks, have repeatedly declined to hold Americans accountable for documented war crimes," the Post wrote.

"The defacto principles governing the punishment of U.S. personnel guilty of prisoner abuse since 2002 now are clear: Torturing a foreign prisoner to death is excusable. Authoring and implementing policies of torture may lead to promotion. But being pictured in an Abu Ghraib photograph that leaks to the press is grounds for a heavy prison sentence."

While this disparity between punishments given the Abu Ghraib night shift and the more lethal work of CIA and military interrogators can't be disputed, the other disconnect -- demonstrated by the two Post editorials both appearing on Feb. 28 -- may be harder to explain.

Even as the world looks on in horror -- as the United States eviscerates its reputation for promoting human rights -- the Post and other U.S. news outlets cling to the now-outdated notion of America as the undisputed human rights champion when it lectures the U.N. on how to isolate human rights abusers.

What the Post editorial board can't seem to get its brain around is that the United States might now fit better in the category of abusive states, the ones that Bush wants excluded from the new U.N. human rights commission. Otherwise, that new body -- like its predecessor -- might lose all credibility.