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No Ifs, Yets or Buts: Hold America to a Higher Standard

The way some of my fellow conservatives have been discussing the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, in which American military guards snapped photos of naked Iraqis being humiliated in various ways, calls to mind a rule of rhetoric known to all writers. If you’ve got a pair of sentences linked by a word like “but” or “however,” it matters which sentence comes before the “but” and which comes after. Always, it’s the one that comes after that the writer means to emphasize.

So when conservatives say things like “Yes, what our soldiers did was wrong. But they are being held to a double standard,” the essential point of that grammatical construction is to protest the double standard, not to regret the humiliation of Iraqi men who, assuredly, were likely villains themselves. This is an avenue of argument that leads to unworthy excuse-making.

So in the Wall Street Journal, Victor Davis Hanson writes of Abu Ghraib: “These seemingly inhuman acts are indeed serious stuff.” That’s in the second paragraph of his May 3 opinion article. Where’s the “but”? Actually it’s a “yet,” and it appears two paragraphs later. “Yet… we need to take a breath, get a grip, and put the sordid incident in some perspective.” Hanson goes on to decry the “asymmetry about the coverage of the incident, an imbalance and double standard.…

“The Arab world… 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.”

Expressing a similar sentiment, former House speaker Newt Gingrich wrote four days later in the same newspaper, “We should firmly state our commitment to our values and denounce any American acts which violate those values.” Now here comes the “but”: “But… we should not play into any double standard where America is allowed to be condemned by anyone who accepts Arab viciousness, terrorism, mutilation and barbarism as normal behavior.”

We’ve often heard related complaints of a “double standard” regarding the State of Israel, a country likewise subjected to “asymmetrical” media coverage of its occasional errors and excesses, as compared to how Palestinian grotesqueries are covered, and downplayed.

Of course there’s a double standard. Now here’s the real “but”: But America (and Israel) are countries we care about precisely because they were founded in order to live up to a higher standard than the rest of the world accepts on itself. With this week’s beheading of Nick Berg, an American civilian in Iraq, we’ve once again been reminded of the repulsively low standard taken for granted in much of Arab culture. Take away that “double standard,” and it ceases to be apparent why we cherish America quite the way we do.

This idea, which historians call American “exceptionalism,” goes back to the Founding, and earlier. In 1630, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop described America as a “city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, wrote in 1783, citing Deuteronomy 26:19: “The Lord made His American Israel ‘high above the nations which He hath made.’”

What makes the “American Israel” special is her allegiance to the millennia-spanning civilization of the Bible. John Adams spoke of how Scripture offered “the only system that ever did or ever will preserve a republic in the world.” He worried of the day when America, like ancient Israel, would loosen her grip on that system, descending into degradation.

So what does Scripture say about the conditions of imprisonment? Well, what it says is limited by the fact that the Bible has no role for prisons, beyond serving as a holding place for criminals awaiting execution — as, by one of those intriguing coincidences that illustrate the relevance of Torah to every day’s news, we saw in last week’s portion from Leviticus (see 24:12). However, the Talmud, in clarifying the application of biblical values, has a fascinating discussion about the imperative to protect the dignity even of the worst criminals.

The discussion, in Sanhedrin 45a, boils down to this: In preparing a criminal for execution, the Jewish court is obliged to minimize his physical suffering. But when doing so might lead to psychological humiliation — for example, when stripping the condemned person naked, which is done only to hasten death by stoning — the Sages preferred to limit humiliation even if the inevitable result was to increase bodily pain.

Stoning may not seem the most sensitive form of execution, but the Talmud’s prescription itself couldn’t be more exquisitely so. Such sensitivity is the heritage of Biblical Israel, and so it is also of modern America. In considering the humiliations to which American soldiers subjected Iraqi prisoners, that — and not the entirely appropriate “double standard” — is the essential point.

America is America because we are better than Abu Ghraib. The fact that the soldiers responsible will be punished, the fact that our leaders show public remorse — whereas in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq prison overseers were rewarded for excruciating tortures — is reason to be proud of our country. It’s not a reason to implicitly minimize the heritage that gives us reason to be proud.

We are a city upon a hill, and the eyes of all people are upon us. May they always be so.

David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).

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