Brown column for May 16

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Who of us has not been transfixed by the pictures we have seen from the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad? With so many Alabamians serving in Iraq, what happens there is a local story.

Most of us have been disgusted by what we have seen. One commentator excused the prisoner abuse as blowing off steam and a senator intimated that all the people in the prison must be guilty of something and that justified their treatment. And some have argued that what happened at Abu Ghraib is no worse than what happens every day in the Arab world, as if that made it justifiable. Those opinions, fortunately, seem to be a tiny minority.

Beyond our disgust, though, consensus falls apart.

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Many have already made up their minds about what happened at Abu Ghraib and who is responsible.

I have some opinions, too, but one thing that I learned in nearly four decades in journalism is that truth rarely emerges full blown. It comes over time in bits and pieces.

Even so, we seem increasingly comfortable making judgments based more on our predispositions than on facts.

A lot has to do with our politics. Those who supported George W. Bush and the war in Iraq readily dismiss the abuses as an aberration that occurred at the lowest levels. Those who opposed Bush and doubted the war are just as quick to assign blame to the very highest levels of government.

Twenty-four hours a day we can tune in talking heads and read opinion writers giving their spin, and many of us listen only to the talking heads and read only the columnists whose views are the same as our own.

I learned over the years, too, that in any situation in which the news is not what people want to hear, they accuse the media of serving up unbalanced coverage.

I have already heard many complaints that the media (and politicians) are focusing on the atrocities committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib and ignoring the good that is being done.

That is rather like complaining that the press concentrated on just what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, instead of writing about all of the students who were going to class, turning in their homework, etc.

(As I suspect will be the case with the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, many of the things we thought we knew in the immediate aftermath of Columbine turned out not to be true.)

Abu Ghraib has already been labeled as an aberration. “This does not reflect America,” we are told.


But our national character is not as stain free as we would like for it to be.

Indians were slaughtered at the hands of Americans. Solid citizens posed happily by the bodies of blacks who had been lynched. The history of atrocities that occurred in Vietnam is still incomplete.

And there have been many demonstrations that even normal people will, under certain circumstances, perform horribly cruel acts.

A key to the action in all of those cases seems to be in regarding the objects of the abuse as less than human.

One reason we have laws and chains of authority is to keep our worse instincts in check.

An election year is not the ideal time to achieve an evenhanded examination of the prisoner abuses, but our nation of late is so politically polarized that no time would be much better.

We must examine as thoroughly and as objectively as possible what occurred at Abu Ghraib and why it occurred.

The only way that we can live up to our ideals is to squarely face up to the times when we fall short.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2004 William B. Brown