SELMA, Calif. -- Pictures of American military police humiliating and, in some cases, allegedly torturing Iraqi prisoners in Saddam's old Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad now flash across the world. "The Shame!," Egyptian papers blare out at the sight of a pyramid of contorted naked males amid a smiling female GI. Various human-rights organizations in the Arab World, we are told, are about to condemn formally such barbarism.
Good. These seemingly inhuman acts are indeed serious stuff. They also raise a host of dilemmas for the U.S. -- from the pragmatic to the idealistic. We must insist on a higher standard of human behavior than embraced by either Saddam Hussein or his various fascist and Islamicist successors. As emissaries of human rights, how can we allow a few miscreants to treat detainees indecently -- without earning the wages of hypocrisy from both professed allies and enemies who enjoy our embarrassment? In defense, it won't do for us just to point to our enemies and shrug, "They do it all the time."
The guards' alleged crimes are not only repugnant but stupid as well. At a time when it is critical to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a few renegade corrections officers have endangered the lives of thousands of their fellow soldiers in the field. Marines around Fallujah take enormous risks precisely because they do not employ the tactics of the fedayeen, who fire from minarets and use civilians as human shields.
Yet without minimizing the seriousness of these apparent transgressions, we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective beyond its initial 24-hour news cycle.• First, investigations are not yet completed. Lurid pictures, hearsay and leaked accounts to the New Yorker magazine are not yet proof of torture, either systematic, brutal, or habitual.
• Second, already the self-correcting mechanisms of the U.S. government and the American free press are in full throttle. Responsible parties, from Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt to President Bush himself, have condemned the accused guards and promised swift punishment when and if they are found guilty.
The number of accused is apparently small. Six soldiers are facing court-martial. Their superior, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, along with seven others, have been suspended from their duties. Although all are innocent until convicted by a military court, the media, government, and officer corps by their initial public pronouncements have apparently erred on the side of the soldiers' guilt. But these are defendants whose military tribunals will not be as sensitive to pretrial prejudice as their civilian judicial counterparts.• Third, we must keep the allegations in some sort of historical context. Even at their worst, these disturbing incidents are not comparable to past atrocities such as the June 1943 killing of prisoners in Sicily, the machine-gunning of civilians at the No Gun Ri railway bridge in Korea, or My Lai. Beatings and rumors of sexual sadism, horrific as they appear, are not on a par with executions that have transpired throughout all dirty wars -- such as the simultaneous reports that Macedonians are now accused of murdering Pakistanis -- but so far have not been attributed to Americans on either the Afghan or the Iraqi battlefield.
American soldiers are not ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Kuwait or executing Kurdish civilians, crimes that in the past went largely unnoticed in the Middle East. So far the alleged grotesqueries are more analogous to the nightmares that occur occasionally at American prisons, when rogue and jaded guards freelance to intimidate and humiliate inmates. The crime, then, first appears not so much a product of endemic ethnic, racial, or religious hatred, as the unfortunate cargo of penal institutions, albeit exacerbated by the conditions of war, the world over.• Fourth, there is an asymmetry about the coverage of the incident, an imbalance and double standard that have been predictable throughout this entire brutal war.
The Arab world -- where the mass-murdering Osama bin Laden is often canonized -- is shocked by a pyramid of nude bodies and faux-electric prods, but has so far expressed less collective outrage in its media when the charred corpses of four Americans were poked and dismembered by cheering crowds in Fallujah. The taped murder of Daniel Pearl or a video of the hooded Italian who had his brains blown out -- this is the daily fare that emanates now from the television studios of the Middle East.
Indeed, if Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera could display the same umbrage over mass murder that they do over these recent accounts of shame and humiliation of the detained Iraqis, much of the gratuitous violence of the Middle East would surely diminish. The papers that now allege war crimes are the same state-controlled and censored media that print gleeful accounts of death and desecration of Westerners and promulgate an institutionalized anti-Semitism not seen since the Third Reich.• Fifth, we are now in an uncertain peace in Iraq. Gone are ranks of the uniformed Republican Guard and the terrible clarity of the three-week war when there were at least lines of combat. Those who have killed over 400 Americans since last April have no uniforms. They shoot from mosques. At night they place bombs indiscriminately on public thoroughfares, and have blown up hundreds of innocent Iraqis who were guilty of nothing more than trying to restore civilian services under the auspices of what promises to be a consensual government.
Right now we see only revolting pictures that properly shock our sensibilities. But because we do not know the circumstances of the interrogations, the conditions of confinement, or the nature of the acts that warranted imprisonment, we are also ignorant to what degree, if any, these men were responsible for horrendous acts -- or if their clumsy interrogators were trying to shame and humiliate them to extract information to save other lives.
We who are appalled in our offices and newsrooms are not those who have had our faces blown off while delivering food in Humvees or are incinerated in SUVs full of medical supplies -- with the full understanding that there will be plenty of Iraqis to materialize to hack away at what is left of our charred corpses. War is hell, and those who do not endure it are not entirely aware of the demons that are unleashed, and thus should hold their moral outrage until the full account of the incident is investigated and adjudicated.
* * *
If a small number of soldiers has transgressed, then let us punish them severely, as well as the officers who either ordered or ignored such reprehensible behavior. But let us also accept that the reaction to this incident is indicative of larger moral asymmetries that are the burdens of the West when it goes to war, a culture that so often equates the understandable absence of perfection, either moral, political, or military, with abject failure -- a fact not lost on our enemies.
We have seen terrible things since September 11 -- monotonous public executions, taped decapitations, videos of brutalized hostages, diplomats gunned down, aid workers riddled with bullets, children's bodies blown apart by improvised explosive devices, nuts, bolts and rat poison added to suicide bombs -- most under either the sponsorship of some autocratic Middle Eastern governments or of terrorist cabals that could not exist without at least the tacit support of thousands in the Arab street.
So as we in America address the moral inadequacies of a handful of our soldiers, let those in the Middle East take heart from our own necessary and stern democratic inquiries and audits, and thus at last now apply the same standards of accountability to tens of thousands, far more culpable, of their own.
Mr. Hanson, a military historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author, most recently, of "Between War and Peace: Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq" (Random House, 2004).