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
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
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 Corporal Charles
A. Graner Jr., who supervised Private 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
“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 Jamadi case also wasn’t an exception; it was
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
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.