Friday, February 17, 2006

Prisoner Abuse and Inspections

The proof that the Bush Administration has lost its sense of right and wrong can be found in the fact that it should be treating its prisoners in ways that it would demand that American prisoners be treated, and insisting on the same inspections of its prisons that it would demand from other countries that may some day hold Americans as prisoners.

This is a second in a series of important news items buried underneath a relatively trivial hunting accident.

This is actually a set of several stories involving Bush's treatment of prisoners. This includes:

(1) The Bush Administration has been forced to release additional images showing the extent of the abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison.

(2) The United Nations released a report declaring that the American prison at Guantanamo Bay is a torture site.

(3) The government of Iraq asked the United States to turn over all Iraqi prisoners to its custody, because the Iraqis are worried about how Americans treat its prisoners.

If you, the reader, have the stomach to look at the pictures, I would invite you to do so after putting yourself in the following frame of mind:

Imagine that the United States launched its attack, only to have been met by a massive Muslim uprising. Not only was our military forced out of Iraq, but Muslim groups swept through other countries picking up American citizens and holding them in makeshift foreign prisons. Imagine that somebody managed to smuggle out some pictures showing how these Americans were being treated. These pictures are identical to the Abu Ghraib photographs, only the pictures showed Arab guards and American prisoners.

Imagine that the Arab leaders had other pictures, but they were refusing to allow anybody to see them. They say that they are worried about the welfare of their soldiers -- that releasing the pictures may fan a wave of protest that would put their soldiers at risk. They claim that the people responsible for the abuses depicted in those photographs have been identified and punished, though (with one exception) the longest penalty was three years in prison. Furthermore, only common soldiers were punished; no senior officer was held accountable for what happened.

Also imagine that, even though the enemy claims that they do not torture, stories like those illustrated by these pictures have come from several of their prisons.

The rest of the world has called for inspectors to check conditions at the other prison. However, the enemy only allows inspections on its terms – and flatly prohibits having anybody talk to the Americans that they are holding.

One issue that may be brought up is that these prisoners are “guilty” of something. Yet, there has been no trial. They have been rounded up and declared guilty. If you wish, add to your imagination the thought that the enemy holding Americans as prisoners insisted that they were all guilty of something. Yet, while they say this, charges have been brought to only a hand full of prisoners, and huge percentages have eventually been released without any charges ever being filed.

With these thoughts in your mind, look at the pictures, if you wish. Remember to imagine that you are looking at American prisoners in an enemy prison.

When you are done, ask yourself how you feel.

The Essence of Morality

The essence of a moral principle is that it is a rule that is supposed to be universal. Morally, it should make no difference whether the prisoners are Americans or Arabs; whether the guards are Arabs or Americans. Whatever it is permissible for Americans to do to Arabs, it is also permissible for Arabs to do to Americans under this fundamental principle of morality.

There is no way, if one is interested in morality, to justify the claim that Americans may do to Arabs things that no Arab may do to Americans.

Now, let us look at a couple of those arguments in more detail.

The Release of the Photos

In your imagination where the pictures are of American prisoners, once again imagine it being the case that there are other photos – other evidence -- that the enemy leaders refuse to make public. They argue that they have a right to keep this information secret because revealing it will put their troops at risk.

Would you raise your voice in protest of the American who demanded that these pictures be released? Would you support those who protested that Americans demanding release of those pictures were violating the rights of a foreign government? Do foreign governments have rights such as this?

Do we have rights such as this?

My guess is that very few people would argue that foreign powers have such rights. The fundamental principle of morality that rights are universal implies that the American government has no such right.

In fact, we would (and we should) react to any country making this type of argument with a deafening rage. We would claim (and we should claim) that they have no right to keep this type of criminal misconduct secret. We would insist (and we should insist) for a full public trial of those responsible. We would insist (and we should insist) that those responsible include people to institute safeguards against this type of brutality.

We would say that these are fundamental human rights that no moral government would violate.

If no moral government would do such a thing, then what does this imply about the American government under President Bush?

United Nations Report

Now, imagine that the United Nations sought to investigate the prisons in which these Americans were being held. However, the government that holds these Americans refuses to allow anybody to speak to the prisoners.

I remember as a child watching episodes of Hogan's Heroes, a comedy about a group of prisoners in a German POW camp. One of the situations they often made reference to was the practice of cleaning up the camp and providing the prisoners with extra comfort when the Red Cross arrived. After the Red Cross left, the situation went back to normal.

We would recognize that it is a waste of time for inspectors to show up at a prison if they cannot talk to the prisoners. Furthermore, we would expect the enemy to threaten those prisoners if they did anything to make their captors look bad. So, the only type of inspection that we could respect is one in which the inspectors could talk to the prisoners in ways that left those prisoners immune from retaliation.

We would not accept anything else.

The only concession that the enemy would have a right to demand is that the inspectors be from a neutral third party, and not people likely to lie or distort what they find.

We would insist that the right that those Americans have to speak to an investigator under conditions where they did not risk retaliation were basic human rights. We would insist that any society that refused to allow this was one that had lost all moral sense.

Yet, under President George Bush and those who work for him (and those who support him in this) we have made us into just that type of society.


Whatever institution a person may follow that says that he may do to others what others are prohibited from doing to him; it cannot be called a moral system. It is something else, and the people who adopt it must abandon morality in order to adopt that system.

Such a society cannot, at the same time, say that it cares about morality – that it devotes itself to promoting that which is right and fighting that which is wrong – if it adopts rules that are morally indefensible.

If we are doing things to prisoners that we would condemn if others were treating our prisoners that way, then we are engaging in acts that are morally indefensible.

That is the type of society that President Bush and his supporters are making into.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! I had wondered what your response would be to many of these issues. All very sound and sensible.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The relationship between morality and what will work out best for us all is not an accident, but a necessary connection.

Morality is the promotion of those desires that will tend to fulfill other desires, and the demotion of desires that tend to thwart other desires.

In just the same way, morality is universal. If you take "us all" out of the equation, then what you have is no longer morality. If you take "us all" out of the equation, then the Holocaust can be moral.

You can no more have an example of morality that is not concerned with "us all" then you can have an example of non-metaphorical sense of cooking that is not involved with preparing food.