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Where the Buck Stops

Of all the shocking things we have learned this month about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps the most appalling is this: that he knew about the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison months ago but did not think them a high priority. “I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including the president and the members of Congress,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I wish we had known more sooner and been able to tell you more sooner, but we didn’t.”

To clarify, Rumsfeld knew as early as January that there were serious allegations of widespread abuse by Americans against prisoners. He heard within short order that photographs existed. The International Red Cross had been complaining of the abuses for months to U.S. military authorities. But Rumsfeld did not see it as a problem that needed to be taken to the highest levels.

Senior military officers have affirmed that they knew months ago of photos being passed by soldiers from computer to computer. In some cases, it appears, soldiers were using the pornographic images as personal screensavers. It was inevitable that the pictures would end up in the media. Anyone with the least grasp of the vagaries of world opinion would have understood the certain impact on America’s image — and consequently on our ability to win over the Arab world that we hope to imbue with our democratic values. But Rumsfeld didn’t see it as a problem that needed to be taken to the highest levels.

Rumsfeld’s fate ought to have been sealed by now, of course. Given the gravity of the crimes under investigation, only the resignation or dismissal of the person in charge can satisfy the demands of justice. If no price is exacted from those responsible, the notion of responsibility loses meaning.

But the rot does not end with Rumsfeld. He carried out the vision of an administration whose intentions and values have been made plain. It is now up to the American public to show that it understands its moral responsibility to choose a government worthy of being called a world power. That’s where the buck stops.

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