Grappling With the Morals On Display in Abu Ghraib
Religious Leaders See Broad Lessons for American Society in the Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2004; Page B09
In recent weeks, the physical abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers has come up whenever Pat Nolan, a prison reform activist, meets other Christians. It was discussed at his Tuesday night Bible study at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Leesburg. It also arose during a meeting of an informal group of Christian professionals in the District.
"People were shocked and troubled and baffled. How could people that wear our uniform do this?" recalled Nolan, president of Reston-based Justice Fellowship, an affiliate of Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship ministry.
The conversations usually turned to how "our young people are just immersed in a sexual culture" in which "a majority of shows on TV today have some sexual theme," Nolan said. "Our kids are bombarded with this."
The abuse has been addressed in sermons, Bible study groups and official statements from religious leaders. And the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance has asked people across the country to turn on lights or candles all night tomorrow as a way "to acknowledge our anguish and need for self-examination, and to foster reconciliation," the alliance's president, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, announced this week.
In all these responses, condemnation of the soldiers' behavior has been widespread. But so has reflection, as people of faith search for answers to why it occurred. Some blame a society that tolerates extremes of sexual expression in entertainment, while others cite an antipathy toward Muslims and a morality since Sept. 11, 2001, that regards the war on terrorism in absolutist terms.
Some U.S. military guards accused of wrongdoing at the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib have said they were told to "soften up" prisoners so they would speak more freely during interrogations. Whether the guards were directed -- or decided on their own -- to use sexual humiliation as the means is not clear. But it has become a noteworthy aspect of the scandal.
Some ethicists and religious activists said they were struck by a comment of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an interview with the New York Times. Asked about his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which he was severely tortured, McCain said: "I was never subjected to sexual humiliation and degradation."
Several agreed with Nolan that the sexual nature of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners should not come as a surprise given the open sexuality of American culture.
"There is a cultural ethos that some of these people brought with them when they . . . volunteered to go into the Army . . . [that] knows no bounds when it comes to propriety," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank devoted to moral aspects of public policy.
Paul Vitz, a Catholic professor of psychology at New York University who studies the intersection of religion and psychology, said "there is nothing non-American" about what the guards did.
"For a large number of young people today, particularly young men, the only moral framework they get is through the popular media," including computer games and Web sites bursting with violence and sex, Vitz added. "When people immerse themselves in the pornography and violence of American pop culture, it's not surprising it has consequences. It's a no-brainer."
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an evangelical Christian, agreed that the prisoners' sexual humiliation is in part a product of America's "highly sexualized" popular culture. But he said the scandal is even more upsetting because it suggests that the type of abuse was deliberately chosen to offend Muslims' strict modesty standards.
"This kind of sexual humiliation, it's bad enough to any human being," Mouw said. "But when it also violates deep convictions Muslims have about nudity and having [their] private parts exposed in front of other men and acting out homosexual things and being humiliated by women in your nakedness, it's deeply violating."
Mouw, who questioned the moral justification for the war in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, said he believes that antipathy to Muslims may also have contributed to the atmosphere in which the sexual abuse was allowed to happen.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company