This Against the Grain commentary is written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
There is one proud and satisfied place where the pictures and accounts of the abuse endured by some prisoners at Abu Ghraib cause no consternation and no outrage: Rush Limbaugh's America, pop. 20 million.
Here's Rush's take, from his Website:
"I'm sorry, folks. I'm sorry. Somebody has to provide a little levity here. This is not as serious as everybody is making it out to be. My gosh, we're all wringing our hands here. We act like, 'Okay let's just die,' you know? 'Let's just give up. What can we do to make these people feel better? Let's just pull out of there, and let's just go. Let's just become a neutral country. Let's just do that.' I mean, it's ridiculous. It's outrageous what's happening here, and it's not -- and it's not because I'm out of touch; it's because I am in touch, folks, that I can understand. This is a pure, media-generated story. I'm not saying it didn't happen; I'm [not] saying the pictures aren't there, but this is being given more life than the Waco invasion got. This is being given more life than almost -- it's almost become an Oklahoma City-type thing. One more Bush sound bite, and the president continued explaining how real democracy works here."
Here's Rush's sociological evaluation of what really happened at Abu Ghraib, as quoted in a piece in The New Republic on Limbaughism:
"This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You [ever] heard of need to blow some steam off?"
Now, don't you feel like a dopey dittohead for letting a little outbreak of prisoner sadism bug you? These were just boys and girls blowing off steam during a stressful situation. Let's not make an international incident out of it, for crying out loud.
In Rush's world, this is essentially geopolitical spilled milk:
"I don't understand what we're so worried about. These are the people that are trying to kill us. What do we care what is the most humiliating thing in the world for them? There's also this business of them all wearing hoods and how that's also very humiliating. You can see more guys wearing hoods at a [Sen.] Robert Byrd birthday party 40 years ago than we've seen in these prisoner photos."
So what's the moral of the story, for Rush?
"There's only one thing to do here, folks, and that's achieve victory over people who have targeted us for loooong, long time, well over 15, 20 years. It's the only way to deal with this, and that's why obsessing about a single incident or two of so-called abuse in a prison is nothing more than a giant distraction and could up being something that will really ties [sic] our hands and handcuffs us in what the real objective is here, which is the preservation of our way of life and our country."
"And that's why I'm not going to sit here and obsess and join the rest of the media with this and turn this into a campaign issue, try to convince as many people that George Bush is incompetent and needs to be thrown out of office -- because that's all this is. But in the process, what all that does is weaken the resolve of the people of this country…"
Now, don't you feel like a dopey dittohead for wasting time worrying about how this incident was preventable fuel for anti-American hate? For worrying that soldiers under our flag did something profoundly wrong by our own measures? For feeling anything remotely like what Limbaugh diagnoses as liberal sniveling?
President Bush, however, has not been comforted by the Limbaugh analysis. "It's a stain on our country's honor and our country's reputation," President Bush said. "I am sickened by what I saw and sickened that people got the wrong impression."
There has been a good deal of attention in the U.S. to how the Abu Ghraib episode has been covered and perceived around the world. I present these passages of America's most listened to political theorist, Rush Limbaugh, in that spirit. Many, many Americans seem to share the views Limbaugh expresses in these quotes -- a fact that people who don't share those views had better understand loud and clear.
I admit to finding several points of agreement in Rush's rush of pronouncements about this saga. (For the record, I'll get more hate mail for that admission than I'll get from Rush's backers, though that too will be voluminous.)
"There are probably some good people in the bad guys and some rotten apples in the good guys, and these people that did this so-called torture may in fact be the rotten apples of the good guy group. But it's like I said: it doesn't taint the whole military effort and it doesn't taint us, but the world is joining in now trying to taint us as a nation, as a people, and as a culture by virtue of these pictures on the basis that we have humiliated these people. What is hijacking our own airplanes and flying them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? How humiliating is it to blow up American civilians in a convoy and have their charred bodies dragged from the car and dragged through it streets? There seems to be no sensitivity, concern or outrage for any of this anywhere in the world. So pardon me if my patience is a little short."
I think Rush is right: the world was not properly outraged when jubilant Iraqis desecrated the mutilated corpses of Americans.
And Rush is right: this is not who "we" are. Some of "us," like some of all peoples, are capable of great cruelty and great evil, in some circumstances. "We" are probably no more or no less susceptible than other groups. What is different about "us" from so many others is the institutions, the laws, the habits, the openness and the idealism that we have developed. All that broke down at Abu Ghraib and in the bureaucracy that managed it.
It is precisely the rebellion and repugnance at such failures that makes us vigilant against them in the future. An it is precisely the skilled sophistry, the chauvinism and the fear mongering of Limbaughism that corrodes the vigilance we should be proud of and that we need to ever cultivate.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.