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All Too Human

How to talk about human rights, and America, after Abu Ghraib.

SINCE THE ABU GHRAIB catastrophe broke two weeks ago, Bush officials have struck many of the right notes. But they have struck one wrong one over and over. “This is not America,” President Bush told the Arabic-language network Al Hurra. “This is not who American servicemen are,” added Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Said national

security adviser Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with Al Arabiya, “Americans do not do this to other people.”

But, of course, Americans did do to this to other people—that’s why Rice was on Arabic television. We know what Bush and Rice and Armitage meant: that most Americans don’t torture prisoners and most abhor what happened at Abu Ghraib. But the categorical insistence that something does not happen, right after it just did, suggests more than simply a desire to distinguish the guilty few from the innocent many. It represents an unwillingness to modify—even in the face of undeniable evidence—the rhetoric of absolute American purity that has characterized this administration’s public statements since September 11. That rhetoric was always wrong, and, until the Bush administration lets it go, it will not have fully learned the lessons of Abu Ghraib.

President Bush has always had a distinctive way of praising people. When he nominated John Ashcroft to be attorney general, Bush said the Senate should evaluate “Ashcroft’s heart and his record.” About ill-fated Labor Department nominee Linda Chavez, Bush spokesmen Tucker Eskew said the president wanted to shine a “light on her big heart.” When Bush first met Russian President Vladimir Putin, he famously said, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” As National Review’s Rich Lowry has pointed out, these formulations make no sense: How can the Senate “evaluate” someone’s heart? In politics, you judge a person’s public performance; you don’t—and can’t—judge their essence. And, since evaluating someone’s moral core is impossible, Bush’s demand that others do so is really a demand that they trust his judgment. His formulations render empirical evidence irrelevant. So, in 2000, when Democrats attacked him for not urging the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, Bush told voters not to “judge my heart based on a position on who ought to be flying a flag over what Capitol.” When Al Gore criticized him for prioritizing tax cuts over health insurance for children, Bush responded, “If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.” But, of course, no one was judging Bush’s heart—they were judging his actions, which was precisely what Bush was trying to avoid.

When Bush praises the United States, he does so in similar terms. After the Florida recount, he told the The Washington Times’ Bill Sammon that he would “seize upon the inherent spirit of America.” In this year’s State of the Union, he cited America’s “good heart.” As in his rhetoric about individuals, Bush dwells on America’s essence, not its actions. Our basic goodness is non-falsifiable and self-evident.

And, because America naturally does the right thing, it need not be constrained by the international rules that keep more fallible nations on the straight and narrow. Since taking office, the Bush administration has killed a proposed U.N. convention regulating the trade in small arms. It has refused to ratify a treaty banning land mines. It has wrecked efforts to enforce a treaty banning biological weapons. And it has waged a fierce campaign to exempt American troops from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. The Bushies have threatened countries that develop nuclear weapons with preemptive war—while simultaneously developing new classes of nuclear weapons designed not for deterrence, but for actual battlefield use. Yet they seem mystified when other countries express alarm. Don’t they know that the United States would never use such weapons unless it were absolutely justified?

Bush officials deny that their refusal to submit to international treaties represents an unwillingness to be held accountable. To hear them tell it, they simply want to be held accountable by U.S. laws and institutions, rather than supranational ones. But, in truth, the Bushies are hostile to domestic oversight, as well. In 2001, the administration reversed a Clinton-era policy and encouraged Cabinet departments to, whenever possible, reject Freedom of Information Act requests. It has denied the General Accounting Office’s request for documents about Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. And it has opposed one bipartisan inquiry into September 11 and undermined another. The implicit rationale behind this opposition is simple: We can be trusted to do the right thing. During oral arguments in the Jose Padilla case, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the dangers of a detention system with no judicial oversight. “Suppose the executive says, ‘Mild torture, we think, will help get this information,’” she said. Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement’s reply was classic Bush: “Well, our executive doesn’t.”

Except that sometimes it does. Americans, it turns out, are not immune to the dehumanizing pressures of war. If our soldiers, and our leaders, generally act better than those of other countries, it is not because of their inherent virtue. It is because this country’s founders, realizing that Americans were deeply fallible, developed ingenious systems of accountability and oversight. Throughout U.S. history, those systems have endured and deepened. But they were horribly absent at Abu Ghraib. And the Bush administration—in the name of sovereignty, national security, and presidential power—has weakened them in the government at large.

Ironically, the only way for the United States to promote human rights after Abu Ghraib is to acknowledge that human rights and Americanism are not the same thing. We must admit what the rest of the world knows—that Americans do evil, and oppose freedom, just like every other people on earth. What makes us different is a political system open and accountable enough to restrain our abuses and correct our course. We act better than other peoples because we realize that, in our hearts, we are no better than them. Our greatness stems from our humility about ourselves. And that is what President Bush doesn’t understand, even after Abu Ghraib.

This article appeared in the May 24, 2004 issue of the magazine.