Once you’ve killed a certain number of people, even with the best will in the world, it becomes awkward to make the cheerful admission, “I goofed.” Halfway through his river of blood, Macbeth reflects that going back would be as tedious as going all the way across. Actually, it turns out that he hasn’t even gone halfway yet.
This is why President Bush will “stay the course” in Iraq. Forget oil, money, power, and even reelection: The deepest vested interest is guilt. Bush has done things he can’t bear to renounce, no matter how costly to America continuing them may yet become.
Now the pictures from Abu Ghraib — merry American girls teasing naked Arab men, Arab women forced to bare their breasts, and the rest of it — threaten to undo all the good will we’ve so painstakingly built up by bombing Arab cities and starving Arab children. Life is so unfair.
The photos have added obscene insults to ghastly injuries, but Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are trying to insist on a pettifogging distinction: that the injuries inflicted by war promote democracy and freedom, while the insults shown in the pictures are contrary to American “values.”
Some churlish Arabs find this distinction hard to swallow. The values of today’s America are no longer the wholesome ones expressed by Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, and Ozzie and Harriet; we now live in the land of Bill Clinton, Larry Flynt, and, by a natural extension, Lynndie England.
And the hell of it is, from Bush’s point of view, that the insults are proving more costly than the injuries. The desecration of the body, whether a dead American body in Fallujah or a live Muslim body in Abu Ghraib, is peculiarly inflammatory.
So with poor Nick Berg. His murder might have been taken in stride, had it been done by, say, a conventional bullet to the head. But the severing of his head arouses a revulsion so deep we can hardly express it — as it was meant to. Presumably his killers, among themselves, talk like our hawks of the air waves: “This is war! The enemy doesn’t play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, so why should we? The only thing those people understand is force.”
Berg’s decapitation did give Bush a chance to step back into the pulpit of moral indignation the Abu Ghraib disclosures had made it awkward for him to occupy. Like Clinton clutching his Bible on the way to a tryst, Bush is most comfortable in his pose as champion of morality, intoning homilies about freedom, democracy, and terrorism. He assures us that there was “no justification whatsoever” for cutting off Berg’s head — as if the country were divided over the issue.
Only a man out of touch with reality could suppose that there remains any hope of charming the Arab-Muslim world with the talisman of American democracy now. It was a lost cause even before the Abu Ghraib revelations; now it’s less than a wistful hope — it’s a mad fantasy.
Yet Bush argues that the unfathomable rage his war has created in the Arab world justifies the war itself. Every new act of terrorism it provokes proves the need to finish the war on terrorism. “We will complete our mission,” Bush says — an ironic comment on his own claim of a year ago: “Mission accomplished.”
Berg’s murder, he says, shows the “nature” of the enemy. But the enemy thinks the war and the degrading tortures — “abuses,” as Rumsfeld prefers to call them — show the nature of the American mission. It could hardly be clearer that the Arab-Muslim world sees Bush as anything but its deliverer. It sees him as the infidel writ large.
But our mission must continue, Bush insists: “Their intention is to shake our will.” Now is the time for American “resolve.” This is no time to admit a colossal mistake, let alone confess guilt. Public support for his war implicates everyone in the responsibility. That’s why Bush has to keep insisting that his cause is righteous, even if it never achieves its purpose. No wonder that, as this sinks in, public support is slipping.
In terms of its original stated goals, the Iraq war is a failure. Bush’s foreign policy might be clinically described as autistic — in its self-absorption, its social blindness, even its linguistic dysfunction. Fate has delivered enormous power to a very strange man.