It changed everything forever. (No, not 9/11.)

Anyone who believes Abu Ghraib was overblown by the media, that it can be swept away by courtmartialing six or seven kid soldiers, that the Nick Berg decapitation should have been a bigger story, that the worst is over or that America is seen in the same light as it was before is only fooling him/herself.

According to the fiercely intelligent (and often infuriating) Christopher Hitchens, this “moral Chernobyl” is about to come catapulting back in a way most of us aren’t prepared for. It seems like a hundred years ago that Rumsfeld leaked to the world that there were “more pictures” and videos, already seen by members of Congress, and Hitchens has it on good authority the cat’s about to come leaping out of the bag.

It is going to get much worse. The graphic videos and photographs that have so far been shown only to Congress are, I have been persuaded by someone who has seen them, not likely to remain secret for very long. And, if you wonder why formerly gung-ho rightist congressmen like James Inhofe (“I’m outraged more by the outrage”) have gone so quiet, it is because they have seen the stuff and you have not. There will probably be a slight difficulty about showing these scenes in prime time, but they will emerge, never fear. We may have to start using blunt words like murder and rape to describe what we see. And one linguistic reform is in any case already much overdue. The silly word “abuse” will have to be dropped. No law or treaty forbids “abuse,” but many conventions and statutes, including our own and the ones we have urged other nations to sign, do punish torture—which is what we are talking about here at a bare minimum.

Hitchens makes a lot of sense as to why torture in any form is to be avoided at all costs, even in the case of the “ticking time bomb.”

I’m still amazed when I visit the warbloggers, and see their commenters saying that this is a dead issue, it’s under investigation and the military is demonstrating how well they have things under control. And they believe this, in the face of the memos and the obvious scapegoating and the fact that most of those we felt it was necessary to torture have since been released from Abu Ghraib — that’s how dangerous they were. That’s what a threat they posed.

For proof of just how profoundly this has affected our image, just look at the latest poll numbers from Iraq.

A poll of Iraqis commissioned by the U.S.-backed government has provided the Bush administration a stark picture of anti-American sentiment — more than half of Iraqis believe they would be safer if U.S. troops simply left.

The poll, commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Government last month but not released to the American public, also found radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is surging in popularity, 92 percent of Iraqis consider the United States an occupying force and more than half believe all Americans behave like those portrayed in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of a multimedia presentation about the poll that was shown to U.S. officials involved in developing Iraq policy. Several officials said in interviews the results reinforced feelings that the transfer of power and security responsibilities to the Iraqis can’t come too soon.

“If you are sitting here as part of the coalition, it (the poll) is pretty grim,” said Donald Hamilton, a career foreign service officer who is working for Ambassador Paul Bremer’s interim government and helps oversee the CPA’s polling of Iraqis.

Abu Ghraib. It may not be a fair picture of America, it may be out of proportion, and it is certainly unfortunate in every way. But it’s our legacy. In the minds of so many, it is who America is. Nothing can ever be the same after Abu Ghraib.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

And apparently Iran is massed at the Iraqi border to take over the security vacumn in two weeks.

June 15, 2004 @ 8:22 pm | Comment

The hooded prison of Abu Ghraib would stay in the minds of all people in the world, if you recalled the picture of the naplamed South vietnamese girl. The image would haunt US’s image forever not matter how Bush and the conservatives see themselves as saviuors.

June 16, 2004 @ 5:59 am | Comment


If there is anything about the torture revelations that is even remotely beneficial to the human condition it is that the real Christopher Hitchens has returned after almost a decade of a self-inflicted — and I was afraid fatal — wounding of his art and intellectual integrity. Praise be to the vagaries of the wordsmithing muses, if it lasts, of course.

June 16, 2004 @ 6:54 am | Comment

Iraqi public opinion poll

Would you stay somewhere you are definitely not welcome ?

June 16, 2004 @ 8:16 am | Comment

Hitchens is a brilliant guy and a great writer who somehow lost his way. Could it be that he’s finding a middle road back to sanity?

June 16, 2004 @ 9:16 am | Comment

Joseph and Richard; you are both making the false assumption that
1) opposing torture,
2) thinking Reagan was a bozo, and
3) vigorously critiquing certain idiocies (or worse) of the left,

are intellectually or morally inconsistent positions. I imagine that Hitchens will continue to irritate both the left and the right with his consistency, the principle that allows him to make a strong case not bound by partisan pandering.

June 16, 2004 @ 9:24 pm | Comment

Sam — wrong. All three items you list are big plusses, they are reasons why I respect Hitch. They are in no way irreconcilable. He can infuriate me at times (he’s too hard on our last legally elected president, for example), and sometimes he can seem like a pendulum. But he’s one of the smartest pundits out there and I hold him in high regard. Usually.

June 16, 2004 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

“he’s one of the smartest pundits out there and I hold him in high regard. Usually.”

So how did he “lose his way” if not for item 3 above, criticising the idiocies of the left? I didn’t notice him voting Republican or endorshing John Ashcroft. Of course, I don’t notice everything–he may have for all I know, but it sure doesn’t sound like him.

June 16, 2004 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, Conrad and The Peking Duck

After an inspiring hour of contortions and the sweaty musk of women at yoga class today, I feel focused and thoughtful enough to bring some ideas to the blog on Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack First, some context. Richard

June 17, 2004 @ 2:04 am | Comment

Sam, as I said he can be like a pendulum. He can also get way too carried away, as in his recent famous article on Reagan’s stupidity. I loved it, but he was certainly carried away.

June 17, 2004 @ 7:36 am | Comment


Inconsistency is the hallmark of an intelligent being who is not afraid to change his mind. That is not the reason that most of Hitchins’ colleagues–I am only one of many–were greatly saddened by the turn his career took a few years ago. It was the writing itself, and its loss of internal logic and integrity–he just turned mean, and also succumbed to that which he had so wonderfully challenged, the beltway insiderism. To his peers, wordsmiths–not editors, they appreciated his prolific output even as the talent dulled–it was sad to watch him become a caricature of himself. His hatred of Clinton was only a symptom, not the cause.

But his work ever since Seymour took on the Abu Ghraib story has snapped him back into the Hitchens form of old. I do hope it is back to stay. That Hitchens has been greatly missed.

June 17, 2004 @ 10:32 am | Comment

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