War crime shame hits close to home

Theresa Montgomery

I’m often compelled to root for the underdog. Get enough people lined up on one side of an issue, and I’m likely to step up on the other.

In the case of Saddam Hussein, whose trial resumes this week, I’m tempted to take up an unpopular cause once again.

Is he on trial for crimes against humanity because he committed them? Or because he committed the unforgivable crime of crossing the U.S.?

At least 50,000 civilians were killed in the brutal military campaign he waged 18 years ago against Iraqi Kurds. Two thousand villages were destroyed. When Hussein was busy in the 1980s gaining notoriety during Iraq’s war with Iran, we didn’t lose a lot of sleep over his unconscionable conduct. It wasn’t our problem.

But then he crossed the line into Kuwait, with its crucial oil reserves. We’ve been chasing him ever since.

Now we want him to pay for his crimes. Although Hussein is being tried in an Iraqi court, it is the long arm of American justice that put him there. We like to see ourselves as the upholder of democracy and human rights.

But how much of this dripping national animosity toward Hussein is authentic moral outrage, and how much is just old-fashioned finger pointing? The more despicable a figure Hussein is, the better we feel about our own morally questionable behavior. He’s the bad guy, not us, right? We’re better than that crazed madman: Just look at what he did.

It gets a little stickier, though, when we have to defend our own policies.

We now have the dark, open secret of the treatment of our prisoners at Guantanamo to justify to the world and to ourselves. Accused terrorists have been detained without indictments or trials, and then tortured in American prisons. We did our best as a nation to ignore their plight as long as we could, until others held us accountable.

Americans are the good guys, remember?

The Bush administration exploited any conceivable loophole in the Geneva Convention – the long established rules for the ethical treatment of military personnel and civilians – so that we could torture prisoners and still act within international law. But it’s cool because those we tortured didn’t belong to an enemy nation, per se, so the rules of the convention didn’t apply. They were just some stragglers we really needed information from.

The atrocities at Guantanamo are not isolated events. Echoes of our inhumanity hover still at Abu Ghraib. Closed last spring after news of the torture methods regularly used there splashed across the world’s headlines, the ghosts of agony still cluster around its name.

We’re Americans: These can’t be war crimes.

Don’t we ever get tired of the end justifying the means? Who do we want to be, as a nation, and is what we’re doing now going to get us there?

Or will we look back on this period of history and squirm in our armchairs, as we justify to our grandchildren that it all seemed like the right thing to do at the time?

If we want to have the moral authority to judge monsters like Saddam Hussein, we’d better first make sure we’re upholding the standards he’s defamed.

Someday, we’ll be on the witness stand of hindsight. What will our defense be?

Theresa Montgomery is a senior newspaper journalism major and columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].