Prison Scandal: Bad Apples or Bad Policy?


President Bush decries killing of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg Wednesday with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. (whitehouse.gov)
After the pictures of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal spread around the world, President Bush said in an interview with Al Arabiya Television that the actions were "abhorrent" and did not represent America.

"They represent the actions of a few people," he said.

 

A few minutes later, he said, "These actions of a few people do not reflect the nature of the men and women who serve our country."

 

Bush's advancement of the few-bad-apples theory is one of the dividing marks within the American Christian community.

 

Fundamentalists identify the source of the prison abuse scandal as a few bad apples. Other Christians have a different take.

 

"Let's not allow our men and women in uniform to be tarred by these bad apples," said Charles Colson, long-time leader of the religious right.

 

Colson said the bravery of "America's finest" in Iraq had restored his faith in the current generation. "These men and women live their lives and do their jobs according to a higher standard—all the more reason why those who failed to meet that standard, those who gave in and let sin corrupt them, need to face justice," he said.

 

Writing in the World Magazine blog, Marvin Olasky said that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld "is not responsible for the perverse acts of a few."

 

The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land claimed that "a few soldiers have besmirched the reputation of the American military."

 

Fundamentalists also asserted that American culture had created the bad apples.

 

Blaming postmodern relativism, Land said "when society produces citizens without an internal moral compass, the military cannot manufacture soldiers who possess such a compass."

 

A similar argument was made by Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, affiliated with Concerned Women for America.

 

"None of this happened by accident. It is directly due to cultural depravity advanced in the name of progress and amplified by a sensation-hungry media," he wrote.

 

Knight blamed progressive thinking for putting women in combat, saying that pornography was liberating and arguing that homosexuality was normal.

 

Liberals "want to use this scandal to undermine the war effort and to damage the president," he wrote. "Surely the images of bizarre sexual activity cannot really offend them. It's standard fare among some of their more active supporters."

 

"Isn't it time for liberals to apologize for systematically aiding and abetting the cultural depravity that produced the Iraq scandal?" Knight queried.

 

Another religious right leader expressed outrage about the media and political opportunists rather than the "apparent prisoner abuse."

 

Gary Bauer wrote, "There are a whole lot of opportunists, as well as outright enemies of the U.S., who want to exploit the problem and harm our nation or use it to serve their own narrow political purposes."

 

Across the theological aisle, other Christians saw the problem as more systemic and deeply embedded in human nature.

 

Jim Wallis of Sojourners rejected the few-bad-apples theory.

 

"Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have rightly expressed their condemnation of such behavior but insist it was isolated to a few individuals," Wallis wrote.

 

He noted, however, patterns of torture, citing Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

 

"Such abuse and atrocities are the consequences of war, especially military occupation. They always have been, and they will continue to be," Wallis wrote. "It is simply the cycle of violence."

 

Roy Medley, general secretary for American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., also underscored the cycle of violence.

 

Calling for believers to prayer without ceasing, Medley said the U.S. "should not continue the sole responsibility for the restoration and stability of Iraq."

 

Under the article title of "Original Sin in Abu Ghraib," Richard Mouw wrote: "When I recoil … at the sight of American soldiers torturing Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, it is not because I am witnessing an evil that is unfathomable to me. That kind of evil is all too familiar to me. I see it lurking inside of me."

 

Mouw wrote, "I certainly do not believe that our only recourse is a fatalistic acceptance of the reality of evil."

 

He said that God can help human beings resist evil and that with God's grace we can work to minimize evil's effects.

 

"This is an important time for the American people to admit to the rest of the world that, though we often act like we are morally superior to the rest of the human race, we are as capable as anyone else of horrible acts of injustice," Mouw wrote.

 

Whether one sees the prison abuse scandal as bad policy or bad apples relates to one's sense of moral superiority.

 

Moral superiority blinds some Christians from seeing their advocacy of invasion and occupation of Iraq as connected to the sex scandal. For them the biblical concept about violence begetting violence is a foreign one. They are blameless. The blame rests with liberals or a few rotten apples.

 

Moral discernment enables other Christians to understand the pervasive nature of sin and to confess that we have not done what makes for peace and justice.

 

Is it time for discerning Christians to speak more directly, publicly and forcefully about the bad policy in Iraq?

 

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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