Grappling With the Morals On Display in Abu Ghraib
"I think the overlay on this is a very strong tendency in our culture to demonize Muslims . . . that goes beyond what we did ideologically in our definition of" Germans and Koreans in past wars, Mouw said. "It's all tied up with a very strong religious warfare kind of mentality -- that they're on a jihad against us and we need to respond in kind."
The Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University who has treated sex offenders, said the sexual abuse inflicted on the Iraqis can partly be explained by a simplistic view of the war on terrorism as one of "us against them."
"When you say, 'I can, in the name of God, go after all these Islamic people and Iraqis and treat them in whatever way I want' . . . it's bad theology and toxic morality because anything I do in the name of God is justified," McGlone said.
Even for those who say they are not fighting Islam, the Jesuit priest added, "the good versus the evil paradigm is in place. This is absolute bad morality besides being bad foreign policy. The world is not black and white . . . and this is dominating the military right now."
Similar observations were voiced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a statement on the abuse. It has "brought shame upon our nation, is an affront to our most basic ideals, and will undermine legitimate efforts to confront the very real threats faced by our nation and the world," the bishops said.
They went on to warn against giving in to "moral risks" raised by the scandal. One such risk, they said, is to believe that Americans do not have "the moral obligation to uphold the basic rights even of our worst enemies" because of "feelings of victimization and moral superiority."
A second temptation, the bishops said, is accepting "an ends-justify-the-means morality" because of "the inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in stopping terrorism."
Bishops of the United Methodist Church also addressed the prisoner abuse in a statement, saying that "the cycle of violence in which the United States is engaged has created a context for the denigration of human dignity and gross violations of human rights of Iraqi prisoners of war."
For clergy in Cumberland, Md., the scandal is a sensitive topic because the 372nd Military Police Company -- the unit to which the alleged abusers are attached -- is based nearby.
The Rev. Charles Irzkus, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Cumberland, said he has made the scandal a priority in his sermons even though two members of the unit, who are not among the accused guards, are in his congregation.
"We needed to speak to what was on the hearts and minds of everyone in this community," Irzkus said.
He added that he always makes three points.
"We stand with the victims, first of all," Irzkus said. "After that, we stand with other members of the 372nd who did not do anything wrong but it's now guilt by association. . . . Finally, we stand with those accused in the sense that . . . we condemn what they have done but we hope there can be healing in their lives."
Rabbi Stephen Sniderman of Cumberland's B'er Chayim Congregation has also publicly addressed the abuse. "I don't care if these people knew about the Geneva Conventions or not," he said, "they still shouldn't behave this way. . . . You still don't treat people that way."
At the same time, Sniderman said, the scandal does not mean "that American society is thoroughly rotten. . . . It doesn't reflect on our entire society. Otherwise, you and I wouldn't be so . . . disgusted."
Many in the faith community agree that abusive acts committed by individuals should not indict an entire society. But others contend that since the abuse reflects some aspects of American society, it demands a communal response.
"To me, this just means our national posturing of moral superiority has been exposed for the sham that it is," said university president Mouw. "We need to be much more humble among nations."
Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who has treated Catholic priests for sexual problems, observed that "secrecy is the royal road to scandal. Everyone is saying this isn't our policy, these aren't our values, and yet someone along the line said, 'This is the way to do it.' It was a secret operation. We can't deny that it comes out of an American system."
As such, Sipe asked, "does it call for an examination of not only our political conscience but our individual conscience?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company