The Scandal of American Imperfection

All criticism of the military over alleged “mishandling” of the Koran ended this week, when it was revealed that the Guantanamo Bay guards accused of the acts were actually being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  The New York Times gave rave reviews to “The Guantanamo Project” as the guards call their art co-operative, citing the powerful message that “acts of artistic juxtaposition” can send about religious absolutism, patriarchy, and the tyranny of unquestioned symbols.  “The best show since Piss Christ!” raved Newsweek.

Oh wait, I just made that up.  But does anyone really believe that those currently in a frenzy over these allegations actually consider mishandling of any inanimate object associated with religion to be such a serious matter and a cause for their own spontaneous indignation?

A lot of secular, agnostic, atheist and otherwise thoroughly non-muslim people have spent a lot of time arguing over the past few weeks about just what –exactly– constitutes “Koran abuse,” whether or not it actually occurred, and just how unforgivable it is (No Excuse for Koran Abuse!).

But lets be honest: the media brouhaha over the Koran, its unquestioned sanctity, and its real or alleged proximity to plumbing fixtures has absolutely squat to do with the Koran, its unquestioned sanctity, or its real or alleged proximity to plumbing fixtures.  It’s about the pre-existing internal politics of the western democracies. The real reason the mainstream media and left-wing political activists are criticizing the military over these allegations is that they so want America to be guilty of something –anything— that can justify their pre-existing animosity that they are even willing to feign a newfound respect for religious symbols just to have something to be offended about.

This same need to justify pre-existing animosity is also what fueled the Abu Ghraib “torture” scandal, the indignant response to the looting by Iraqis of Iraq’s museums after the initial invasion, the “illegal” shooting of various terrorists, the declaration of the illegal combatants in Afghanistan as “illegal combatants,” the comparison of the Guantanamo Bay holding facility to the Soviet Gulags, and a dozen other exaggerated events over the past three years.

These “scandals,” “atrocities,” and “missteps” are not causes of outrage, they are just useful weapons for those who were already in a state of outrage over American power or policy –or (more frequently) just the fact that American power and policy are currently being directed by George W. Bush and the Republican Party.  These events are not the motivation for the angry crowd to gather, they’re just the handy rocks the crowd is throwing.  What such manufactured messes are, in fact, are fine examples ensuring failure by setting impossible standards.

This statistical approach to propaganda is a form of bias in reporting, designed to ensure that America will be afflicted by a constant stream of scandals, atrocities, and missteps, so long as its policy is out of favor with those doing the reporting.  This technique takes two forms. 

One form is lowering the bar for outrage.  In this version, you simply redefine deviance upward, so to speak, until it is statistically certain that some U.S. action can be defined as deviant.  The redefinition of the word “torture” is a prime example of this technique.

Words mean things, unfortunately these things can be changed through incorrect and disingenuous usage.  We all know what is really meant by the word “torture” –hideous and extreme physical pain applied without mercy, often as an end in itself.  Torture is now defined as anything that causes any discomfort–physically, emotionally, or aesthetically. 

Sleep deprivation is torture.  Rough handling is torture.  Harsh words are torture.  Close confinement is torture.  Scary situations are torture.  Embarrassment is torture. Being threatened with extradition to one’s home country is torture. Such accusations make a parody of true torture.  If you want to debate the morality of torture as an interrogation tool, let’s do so.  But do not belittle the very concept of torture just because you really, really want to make an accusation of torture against a government you already hate. 

Another example of indictment through redefinition is the previously mentioned labeling of Guantanamo Bay as the “Gulag of our times.”  “Gulag” refers to the communist system of slave labor camps that stretched across the Soviet Union.  In these camps, over 1.5 million people –almost all citizens of the Soviet Union imprisoned by their own government— were systematically starved, beat, worked, shot, or frozen to death for thought crimes, petty crimes, or merely imagined crimes over the course of several decades.  Guantanamo Bay is a holding facility for a few hundred foreign terrorists, most captured in combat.  This facility is so horrendous that if you say someone threw a water balloon at you or “tortured” your complementary copy of the Koran, there will be an official investigation by the military and the FBI.  The Gulag, apparently, ain’t what it used to be.

The other technique of ensuring failure through impossible standards is using uncommon incidents (or the crimes of individuals) to create a general indictment of misconduct against America  –or at least the Bush administration.  America is a huge nation.  We have somewhere around 250,000 to 500,000 soldiers, agents and civilians directly involved in the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror at any given time.  It is statistically certain that a small number will commit crimes or just screw up royally.  It has happened in every war –and in every peace.  You cannot assemble more than a few dozen people without this occurring. 

The United States Military in World War II contained idiots, murderers, rapists, thieves, perverts, and sociopaths.  This did not stop the other members of this force from becoming known as “The Greatest Generation.”  And it should not have.  Every society and organization should be known by the representative character of its rank and file, not by the character of its most remote moral outliers.  But to those intent on defaming the U.S., its war effort, or the current administration, such a thought is non-sense. 

Every soldier is a potential poster boy for Iraq or Guantanamo –all he has to do is something wrong.  If a couple of ignorant perverts make prisoners perform homoerotic Twister for a souvenir photo, this is a direct and inevitable result of Donald Rumsfeld being Secretary of Defense.  If one frustrated soldier –forced to deal daily with the most heinous religious fanatics imaginable– gets mad and kicks a Koran, this is George W. Bush’s insensitive Gulag state at work.

The really fabulous thing about this form of dishonesty is that you never have to tell a lie (or make up memos), you simply have to report the small as though it were large and the rare as if it were common.

Once you’ve adopted this standard, you’re 100% guaranteed of the outcome:  America –bad, bad, bad.  The result, however, says less about America than it does about the people that set such impossible standards.

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