Eric Salzman of the CBS News Campaign Unit has the latest in a series of election-year reports from Allentown, Pa., a city that's a microcosm of America in most every way – including how it votes in presidential elections.
The is at its best when it serves up a surprise as it did this past week. Escaping the media bubble of New York City, I once again took Route 78 into Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley — my new home away from home.
I brought with me a question, one I figured I knew the answer to ahead of time. What did people think of the images and information coming out of Abu Ghraib?
With the storm of controversy stirred up by images of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, I anticipated a chorus of disgust. Shock, horror, and embarrassment are the words I thought people would use.
While no one condoned or excused the actions of the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, there was a collective inclination to regard the incident as a pre-determined anticipated reality of war.
"I wasn't surprised. I believe it's just a sense of frustration," said 34-year-old Amy Bloom Coleman, a housewife and mother of two. "I mean they were posing," she pointed out. "They posed in pictures and if you felt like it was that much of a horrific situation, they wouldn't have done that."
She has a point — whether they were acting on orders or just acting out, the U.S. soldiers in the photos must have thought for some reason that the evidence they were creating would not be damaging to them. And despite the negative attention the images are receiving throughout the media world, to some people, they're simply not that incriminating.
"You kind of figure in any kind of camp situation there's always some kind of hazing going on," John Annoni, an Allentown school teacher, said. Annoni pointed out that the incident should not be taken lightly, but that there should also be no rush to judgment until full context for the photos can be provided.
Syrian-born Eli Makhoul spent ten months in Iraq working as a linguist for the Department of Defense. "If it's true that the few have done this ... then those folks should be held responsible," he said. "Should they nail them against the wall? I don't think so."
While Makhoul says abuse of prisoners can't be excused, he has sympathy for U.S. troops working under desperate conditions. "Say for example when you're gone from home and you're a year-and-a-half already, and you're only a reservist. And now you're having to pull this duty, 14 hours a day, 15 hours ... In this heat, in this weather, no air conditioning, no amenities whatsoever. How would you feel? I mean seriously. Your patience would grow thin as well for the smallest little thing."
Makhoul never visited Abu Ghraib while in Iraq but knew its reputation. He attributes what happened there partially to the overwhelming number of prisoners the U.S. soldiers had to handle. He also says that Abu Ghraib in particular is a prison housing some of the roughest elements. "I know some of the personalities in that prison and trust me, they belong there."
Vietnam veteran Barry Willever thinks the Iraqis could have had it much worse. "I think they're lucky to be in prison," he said. "If they were in Vietnam right now, getting back to the prison camp, maybe some of them wouldn't have made it."
Willever was embarrassed when President Bush apologized. "We used to humiliate a lot of people," he said of his time as a machine gunner in Vietnam. "It's a big deal to a politician. To me who has seen it, it's not a big deal."
To Willever, the more painful image is that of four American contractors dead in Fallujah, of Iraqis brutalizing Americans. "All they did was humiliate somebody. That's all they did. They didn't hurt nobody," he said of the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
Makhoul, who was shocked when he initially saw the photos, doesn't think they'll have much of an impact in Iraq because of how bad the situation already is. "The hatred's been there," he said. "The hatred is the fact that 'you're in our country and you don't belong here.' And if it was any country besides America, it would be OK. But it's America and it's not OK. That's the bottom line. That's the vibe that is on the streets in Iraq."
Makhoul is concerned for the U.S. soldiers in Iraq — and that sentiment was the prevailing one as I spoke with people throughout the Allentown area. People maintained an overwhelming sense of faith and pride in the U.S. military, insisting on putting the best possible light on a grim situation — a stark and fascinating contrast to the echoing rancor back inside the bubble.
By Eric Salzman
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.