The whole world is currently aghast at the pictures of American contractors and servicemen humiliating detainees in Iraqi prisons. We all want to know how it could have happened. How could these fine young Americans lower themselves to the level of the people from whom they were supposed to be protecting us? When I ask myself that question, two truths I am sure of collide head on. Somewhere in that collision, I think, we may find the answer.
The first truth is the character of American service men and women. I have a number of friends in the military at every level, from a long-time friend who is a full colonel in the Army, to former students who are married to Army second lieutenants and Navy ensigns, to one who is a Marine sergeant. Without exception they are among the most upright, honorable, and decent people I know. It is impossible to imagine any of them getting involved in something shameful.
Yet people just like them did. And that leads us to the second truth: human nature. The best of us has a capacity for evil that, given the right circumstances, can manifest itself in appalling ways if we are not constantly vigilant against it. The sad truth is that most of the greatest villains of history-Pilate, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden-were not monsters but people just like us who convinced themselves through a series of easy moral compromises that they were doing the right thing. They probably sincerely saw themselves as heroes. Each rationalization seemed a small thing when it was made, but the series added up to gross evil and egregious infamy. The path to Hell is almost always paved with good intentions. There but for the grace of God go I.
Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no difference between America and its enemies. There is a great difference indeed. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have both swallowed their pride (and they've got a lot to swallow!) and apologized to the world for the suspected terrorists who were humiliated. There have been no apologies from Al Quaeda for the innocent people, including women and children, who were killed in the attack on the Trade Towers. Our problem is a serious one, but it is being exposed and dealt with, not covered up. The people who are guilty will be punished, not turned into heroes. They will be given fair trials by duly appointed authorities, not summarily executed by self appointed assassins. It is the difference between light and darkness, day and night-and yes, we must also say, good and evil.
We are not perfect. It is a bitter lesson, one that we have to learn periodically. But we must let it teach us humility without a lessening of resolve. For we must not let this lesson obscure the real difference between good and evil. It is not the difference between the perfect and the purely wicked. It is the difference between those who are still fighting against the evil in themselves and those who have yielded to it. It is the difference between those who say, "There but for the grace of God go I," and those who have become so self righteous that they feel justified in committing any evil however despicable so long as it advances their cause. It is, in other words, the difference between the (imperfectly) righteous and the self righteous.
It is when we forget these hard lessons, when we allow our righteousness to become self righteousness, that we risk becoming no different from our enemies. Let's make sure this scandal becomes not a stumbling block in our war against terrorism but rather a stepping stone to be sure that never happens.
Updated 6/4/2004 10:59 AM