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Pilot Guest Editorial

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

King's comments are un-American

In a recent opinion piece, northwest Iowa Congressman Steve King downplayed the image of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Douglas Burns, a journalist from Carroll, offers a counterpoint.

By DOUGLAS BURNS

Caroll Daily Times Herald

Special to the Pilot-Tribune

Former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey didn't choose Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball's color barrier because he was the best African-American player available.

To be sure, Robinson was great. But there were arguably better blacks in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s.

Robinson got the historic call up because he could take the pressure of an unimaginably unfair scenario, a life full of taunts and heckling and jeers and threats. That he could be dignified under such a barrage of racist outbursts, that he could be better than his cracker critics is what makes Robinson's life so estimable.

In many ways, with much greater stakes, of course, this is what our American military face in Iraq.

The life of an exemplar is not easy.

We are held to a higher standard in the court of world opinion.

And that does seem terribly cruel, awfully unjust at times like these, with revelatory photos (coming soon on video, too, we hear) of profoundly disturbing and very likely criminal acts on the part of Americans in our Iraq detention centers.

"I have to ask where was this international outrage when American contractors were butchered on the streets of Iraq and hung from bridges as cheering crowds looked on?" U.S. Rep. Steve King, a western Iowa Republican, asks. "Where was the world's fury when mass graves of hundreds of thousands of Saddam's murdered victims were uncovered? Where was this collective outrage when the unthinkable stories of torture and abuse of millions of people under Saddam's regime finally came out? Where is the international outrage every time Osama Bin Laden broadcasts another message threatening more attacks like 9/11?"

The world's fury was there, no doubt. Even American-hating Arabs were outraged at the mutilation of corpses, saying in countless interviews that such desecration is against their own religious teachings.

Victims of Saddam's tyranny and their families, the ones still alive to be outraged, remain so.

President Bush continues to justify the loss of American life in Iraq with portraits of the brutality visited upon its populace under Hussein.

As a nation, we are horrified, at the loss of American life and injuries to all innocents.

But we anticipate evil from the evildoers.

It's sickening, not surprising.

What the world doesn't expect from the American liberators is a crude collection of porn photos with a West Virginia private, Lynndie England, who with cigarette jammed in mouth and an Iraqi detainee hooked naked to a dog-leash, is a sort of modern-day cross between the Marquis de Sade and the worst nightmare of New York City's zealous anti-smoking mayor Michael Bloomberg.

King is right in one sense: it isn't fair that the world knows about the "soldier" from West Virginia and her apparent debauchery, and few people focus on the heroism of people like my friend, Jeff Gerken, a Breda native and naval reserve officer who helped construct schools and other infrastructure in Iraq under enormously challenging circumstances. A photo

of Jeff working with some Iraqi families hangs next to my desk as an inspiration.

"There are hundreds, perhaps thousands more of these amazing stories," King says. "I am proud of our soldiers who go above and beyond to give the Iraqi

people a fighting chance at freedom."

Adds the Kiron Republican, "Let's not let the actions of a few overshadow that which should be the most important issue at hand."

Much as King would like the issue to disappear, to be written off as the tomfoolery of a few, it is only getting worse.

The Iraq prison mess is not, as King says, "the actions of a very small number of U.S. soldiers" or "isolated behavior."

President George W. Bush also has said the mistreatment "was the wrongdoing

of a few," but an International Committee of the Red Cross report provides

evidence of that neutral organization's assertion that the abuse was part of

a system, "not individual acts."

Our own military is investigating it as such.

To explain the prison problem away as King is by raising comparisons to the brutalized U.S. contractors may work well as a gut reaction, but as an appeal to the "hearts and minds" of the Arab street it's disastrous public relations, the kind of talking that will only inflame.

We're better than our enemies, Mr. King. To suggest anything else with these references is patently un-American.

The world should expect more from America.

We can get past the prison scandal, but only with unqualified apologies and a full accounting of the crimes, not the arrogant, equivocating politics of leaders like King - who is way off on his facts and defiant in a moment that

demands contrition.

This mission as defined by the Bush Administration is going to cost more lives, but to earn more than a Pyrrhic victory we have to fight like Jackie Robinson played: with a defining dignity.