The Washington Post Column

Willing Torturers

A few years ago, a scholarly book with the provocative title “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” climbed to the top of U.S. bestseller lists. In part the book attracted attention because its author located the origins of the Nazi death camps in the German national character, in German history and in the specific nature of German anti-Semitism. What happened in Germany, he implied, could never happen anywhere else. Certainly it could never happen here.

The argument that torture or mass murder could have happened only in a particular culture has deep appeal: No wonder it has been made so many times, about so many cultures. During any conversation about the Soviet Union, someone will eventually claim that Soviet totalitarianism derived from ancient Russian traditions of czar-worship. Many people also assume, even if they don’t say so, that the mass slaughter in Rwanda would not have happened in a less primitive, more “civilized” place.

And yet — the Soviet Union exported its concentration camps to places as un-Russian as Romania and North Korea. The Nazis found allies across Europe, in France and Holland as well as Lithuania and Ukraine. Explaining the Rwandan massacres by pointing to “primitive” Rwandan culture doesn’t explain the Cambodian massacres, which took place in a very ancient, very different Buddhist society. Surveying the history of the 20th century, it’s clear that any culture is capable of terrible atrocities, given the right conditions.

The American soldiers and civilians responsible for humiliating, torturing and possibly murdering Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad over the past few months do not belong in the same category as Nazi or Soviet camp guards. But their actions do prove, if further proof were needed, that no culture is incapable of treating its enemies as subhuman. We’ve now seen the horrific evidence: American soldiers, brought up in an American culture, stripped and sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners. They dressed them in black hoods and laughingly threatened them with electrocution.

They also took photographs of themselves, grinning and pretending to shoot at the genitals of their captives, even though the prisoners came from a society that values physical modesty, even though some of the guards were women. Finally, they took photographs of at least one other Iraqi who had, apparently, been beaten to death. Those responsible did not commit these acts because they were Americans, although some will surely say so. But nor did being American stop them.

In fact, it is not difficult to create a situation in which ordinary soldiers of any nationality feel entitled to mistreat prisoners of war. All that is needed is a sense that the ordinary rules don’t apply, a situation more formally known as the absence of the rule of law. In totalitarian societies, the rule of law is always absent, by definition. But even in democracies, the rule of law is often suspended during wartime. More than 2,000 years ago, Thucydides wrote of war as a time when the “conventions of human life” are “thrown into confusion,” and so it remains.

Precisely because murder and rape and torture are more common during wartime, past U.S. governments have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which were designed to enforce the rule of law, however badly or weakly, during wartime. But although these particular international laws have never been controversial, it has nevertheless became fashionable, in some Washington circles, to argue that America is now somehow above them and to suggest that they need not be taken quite so seriously as in the past. Back in February 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay were not even entitled to a hearing establishing whether the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war applied to them. Perhaps it didn’t, but Rumsfeld wasn’t willing to prove the case in a court: “The set of facts that exist today with the al Qaeda and the Taliban were not necessarily the set of facts that were considered when the Geneva Convention was fashioned,” he claimed.

There is a long way down the chain of command from Rumsfeld to the six soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company who have been now been charged with abuse of Iraqi prisoners. But the defense secretary’s feeling that America’s war is an exception to the old rules certainly helped create the atmosphere that made abuse possible. The soldiers were, it seems, told that “this is how military intelligence wants it done.” Why didn’t more of them conclude earlier that “military intelligence,” even American military intelligence, might be wrong?

In the coming weeks, more of this story will be told. We’ll hear about the role of the commanders and the role of private contractors. People will be punished, and if so, that might help restore the rule of law in Iraqi prisons. National outrage is mounting, and that’s a good thing. None of which should distract us from the deeper point: Yes, America is a beacon of democracy. But Americans are still as capable of torture as anyone else. Rumsfeld said yesterday that it was “un-American” to abuse prisoners — as if Americans were still somehow exempt from the passions that grip the rest of the human race. But we aren’t, and because we aren’t, we shouldn’t dispense with rules that have been designed to contain them.