The Right Conversation for America

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, June 13, 2005

Earlier this month Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned the priorities of editorial pages such as The Post's.

"Two of the country's largest newspapers, for example, have devoted more than 80 editorials, combined, since March of 2004 to Abu Ghraib and detainee issues, often repeating the same erroneous assertions and recycling the same stories," he said. "By comparison, precious little has been written by those editorial boards about the beheading of innocent civilians by terrorists, the thousands of bodies found in mass graves in Iraq, the allegations of rape of women and girls by U.N. workers in the Congo."

This wasn't the first time Rumsfeld questioned why a newspaper would devote so much more space to criticizing U.S. officials than to spotlighting foreign terrorists or dictators who behave far worse. It's a fair question, echoed by many readers who ask why U.S. newspapers focus so much attention on a few American soldiers who misbehave -- when most are performing heroically and when Iraqi terrorists are deliberately blowing up Iraqi civilians by the score.

Of course The Post has published editorials on the subjects Rumsfeld mentioned -- mass graves, U.N. abuse, terrorist killings -- and on the crimes and misdemeanors of many other foreign actors besides, from Darfur to China to Burma, from Saddam Hussein to Robert Mugabe.

But it's also true that The Post has published more editorials criticizing Donald Rumsfeld than Abu Musab Zarqawi. That's partly because, to the extent that editorials are meant to educate or explain, there isn't all that much to say about Zarqawi's evil that isn't evident to most Post readers; and to the extent that editorials are meant to influence, there's no point in addressing messages to the beheaders of the world.

But there's more to it. The Post has criticized the administration for failing to give detainees hearings as called for under the Geneva Conventions; for writing memos that toyed with the definition of torture and undermined long-standing Army restraint in questioning prisoners; for prosecuting low-ranking soldiers while giving the brass a pass; for allowing the CIA to hold prisoners beyond the reach of the International Red Cross or any other monitor; and for refusing to empanel a truly independent commission to examine accountability for prison abuse up the chain of command, up to and including the White House.

Rumsfeld does not accept The Post's assessment of these events. But even if he did, as I understand his comment, he would point out that none of these offenses, even if accepted as true, is as heinous as filling a mass grave.

But just invoking such a comparison, even implicitly, amounts to a loss for the United States. If we have to defend ourselves by pointing out that we are morally superior to terrorists, it's a loss.

The United States and this administration in particular continually assert the moral right to behave differently than other nations. We will not be bound by the International Criminal Court. We insist that other nations give up their nuclear weapons while we keep our own. We wage war without U.N. Security Council approval. We publish annual report cards on everyone else's human rights records.

The premise of this highhandedness is that the United States is, on balance, a force for good in the world -- a superpower that uses its might not to subjugate others but to allow them to live freely. This is a premise that The Post's editorial page on the whole accepts -- to the dismay of many readers.

But any nation asserting such a high calling will be judged by an equally high standard. Are we better than the beheaders, the mass killers, the U.N. peacekeepers raping young girls in the Congo? That's not close to the right question.

Do we behave as well as we claim, as we should, as we expect of others? That's the beginning of the right conversation -- and why it's fair to write more editorials about exceedingly mild Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay than about the unspeakable mass graves of Hilla.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company