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Friday, May 14, 2004 - Page updated at 05:34 P.M.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. / Syndicated columnist
Abuse of Iraqi prisoners goes well beyond 'hazing'

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DALLAS — Apparently the shelf life for moral outrage in this country is about two weeks.

Americans caught their first glimpse of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. military personnel, thanks to photos that aired April 28 on CBS's "60 Minutes II."

The American public still doesn't know the extent of the abuse, who ordered it, or whether this is standard operating procedure for military interrogations.

Even so, many Americans seem to have decided that they have seen and heard enough. NBC News reported this week that many Americans find the images of Abu Ghraib overwhelming. Psychologists say that Americans are having difficulty processing something that goes against what they think of as the typical behavior of men and women in uniform. And so, they're just tuning it out.

Meanwhile, other Americans don't seem to have nearly the trouble coping. Judging from calls to talk-radio stations and letters published in newspapers, a lot of people have determined that whatever happened at the prison is nowhere near as bad as some people think. Certainly nowhere near as bad as the heinous murder of Nick Berg, the 26-year-old civilian contractor from West Chester, Pa., who was beheaded in Iraq over the weekend.

After Berg's videotaped execution was posted on a Web site with ties to al-Qaida, many Americans were furious. They accused the terrorists who killed Berg of crossing some imaginary line that separates the acceptable from the atrocious.

With the murderers claiming that they were avenging what had happened at Abu Ghraib, and with many Americans preferring to think of the abuse committed in the prison as limited to what radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh compared to the "hazing" done by college fraternities, it was easy to see the logic of those who thought the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Many Americans were quick to insist that there is a world of difference between forcing someone to wear underwear on his head and cutting off someone's head.

And yet, interrogation experts say, U.S. military personnel probably used sexual humiliation because of the shock value that it carries in Muslim culture.

One cannot equate what happened to Nick Berg with much of what happened at Abu Ghraib. Still, it is also the case that, for many Muslims, the very definition of crossing a line is posing naked men in homosexual positions, allowing men to be humiliated by female soldiers, and — in some of the most egregious examples of misconduct now coming to light — allowing U.S. military personnel to sexually assault female detainees. When U.S. soldiers took aim at the enemy's culture, they invited him to do the same.

If Americans outraged by the killing of Berg aren't ready to think about the circumstances that contributed to his murder, then they won't like the disturbing news from Capitol Hill that the abuse committed by U.S. troops is much worse than was previously reported.

Take it from members of Congress who this week got a peek at some of what is reported to be hundreds of additional photographs, many of them detailing actions that go well beyond what Limbaugh calls "hazing."

"The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said last week.

After seeing the photos, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama told NBC News that they included the image of someone who appeared to have had part of his face blown off. Another senator reported seeing pictures of what looked like the partial decapitation of an Iraqi prisoner.

One of the latest items to surface is a video diary of a young American soldier talking about two Iraqis who died in U.S. custody. The soldier responded with: "Who cares?"

Who cares? That's a good question right about now.

Not Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who this week declared that he had heard enough from critics of the prisoner abuse. Saying that he was "outraged by the outrage," Inhofe insisted that Iraqis "wake up every morning thanking Allah" that Saddam no longer runs the prisons.

No doubt. Saddam was a thug and a tyrant. His goons committed rape and mutilation and murder in his name. The difference is, if the reports are true, members of the U.S. Army committed rape and mutilation and murder in our name.

That's not something we should get over so easily.

Ruben Navarrette's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright 2004, The Dallas Morning News

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