Delusions of goodness beyond Abu Ghraib

12.05.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 009  



[Lynndie England's] best friend Destiny Goin stressed that she believed England could not possibly participate in such degrading acts, because she is such a good-hearted, generous person who is loyal to her friends and has shown great kindness, even to strangers, over the years.

Jackie Spinner, Sun-Herald May 9th 2004, p. 10

The fact is, this is an exception. The pattern and practice of the Saddam Hussein regime was … to murder and torture. [E]quating the two, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what took place. … [W]hat has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture. … And our country is our country, and it is a wonderful country. And the American people are wonderful people, and our armed forces are wonderful people. And when one drops a plumb line through the totality of that, is it perfect? No. Are there things like this that happen? Yes. But over time, the people tend to find their way to fair, reasonable conclusions.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; interview transcript at:

[Abu Ghraib] does not reflect the nature of the American people. … That's not the way we do things in America …

President George W. Bush; cited By Robert L. Bastian Jr, Los Angeles Times May 8th 2004

One suspects Jesus Christ would shake his head in disbelief. ‘Are you so dull? Out of people's hearts flow lewdness, arrogance and folly. These evils come from within, and defile people,’ says Jesus—and much more harshly than this brief summary suggests [Mark 7:20-23 and Matthew 15:16-20]. (By ‘heart’ Jesus means the intersection of our desires, thoughts and actions.)

It is hard to know how to begin responding to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. One feature of the abuse, which Jesus knows something of in his assessment of the heart, has been the bizarre sexual theme throughout—nakedness, sexual poses, simulated sex, forced masturbation, rape and sodomy. Here is the human heart at work in an unrestricted environment, and for modern Americans, it takes the form of what Jesus called ‘debauchery’ or ‘lewdness’. We don't have to examine popular American culture for very long to discover the source of this expression of the heart.

But a more disturbing aspect is the repeated refrain, exemplified in the naivety of Destiny Goin, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, that Americans are basically good.

Bush's position is all the more disappointing given his sympathies with evangelical Christianity. Historically, evangelical Christianity has always held that humanity has a sinful nature. What Jesus calls ‘the heart’ is called ‘the flesh’ by St Paul (and translated ‘sinful nature’ in the NIV English Bible). Paul doesn't mean by ‘flesh’ that our physical, bodily existence is bad, but that we tend always to gratify our desires as if they are all that matter. ‘The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.’ [Romans 8:7-8] Humans simply cannot do what they ought to do. ‘If righteousness could be gained through the law’—that is, if humanity could somehow lift itself from its moral quagmire—then ‘Christ died for nothing!’ [Galatians 2:21] But that God sent his own Christ to die for sin signals the enormity, and the totality, of humanity's problem.

This theological assessment sounds irrelevant until we consider the very fearful ramifications of America's failure to grapple with the bitter truth of their own sinful nature. Historically, evangelical Christianity's deep knowledge of humanity's sinful heart contributed heavily to several peacemaking institutions in society, such as the rule of law, the justice system arising from it and processes of accountability designed to avert crime. But when this knowledge is all but lost, the risk is not just of naivety. We are also likely to see a totally inadequate response.

For example, consider the logic of Rumsfeld's possible resignation. The crime is underestimated (‘Americans are wonderful and couldn't really have done such bad things—and besides, abuse is not really torture’). Career is overestimated (‘for surely,’ we think, ‘it is a great disaster for anyone's career to end’). By pairing these odd views, Westerners are content to think that Rumsfeld's resignation will somehow be an adequate recompense (alongside some punishment for seven of the U.S. Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company, including Lynndie England). It is unlikely, however, that a mere resignation will mean anything to the Arab world or to the prisoners themselves.

If Americans realise a deep sense of their thoroughgoing wickedness, perhaps an adequate response could be imagined. In Christian thought, relationships require repentance and forgiveness after serious wrongdoing if they are to proceed. If the President himself knelt before representative Iraqis (or even the prisoners themselves) and begged for forgiveness on behalf of his nation, and if adequate compensation were paid, with a costly personal contribution from all involved, then perhaps justice might be seen to be done. But the initial theological mistake, where America cannot really do wrong, makes them greatly to be feared. They will be unable to hold their fearsome armoury in check, and will fail to restore people they have broken, because like sinners everywhere they will not notice their past and future wickedness. Somewhere in here is the ‘arrogance’ and ‘folly’ that Jesus also said comes from the heart.

Despite rapidly mounting evidence to the contrary, America's leaders are desperate to convince us that the Iraqi intervention is a just war. But if America is to wage just war, then Americans will have to do a much better job at justice. Real justice begins with a proper appreciation of the great possibilities for sin within the heart of whoever enacts justice.

(This briefing has lumped ‘Americans’ together in order to make a point. We realise, of course, that Goin, Rumsfeld and Bush do not represent the views of every American. For an astonishingly powerful assessment of the Abu Ghraib scandal, see Philip Kennicott, “A Wretched New Picture Of America,” Washington Post Wednesday May 5th 2004; online at


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