The de facto principles governing the punishment of U.S. personnel guilty of prisoner abuse since 2002 now are clear: Torturing a foreign prisoner to death is excusable. Authoring and implementing policies of torture may lead to promotion. But being pictured in an Abu Ghraib photograph that leaks to the press is grounds for a heavy prison sentence. In addition to Mr. Graner, seven lowly guards appearing in photos, none of whom were involved in fatalities, have been sentenced to prison. But according to a well-documented new report by Human Rights First, only 12 of 98 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody have resulted in punishment of any kind for any U.S. official. In eight cases in which prisoners have been tortured to death, the steepest sentence meted out has been five months in jail.
This is true and widely acknowledged: the investigation into and the prosecution of war crimes must involve the entire chain of command. It is clear that the chain leads all the way to the office of the Secretary of Defense and the Justice Department. But war crimes occur in every war, the enterprise of killing human beings. And an immoral and illegal war leads necessarily to immoral and illegal acts of human depravity, such as what happened at Abu Ghraib prison and continues to occur at Guantanamo and the other US gulags around the world. The Washington Post has never fully acknowledged its role as one ot the most vocal and visible cheerleaders for the US invasion of Iraq. On the op/ed pages of the Washington Post in 2002 and early 2003 readers were told over and over again that "Saddam Hussein poses a grave danger" and must be toppled. Opponents of the war were painted as naive appeasers or even a traitorous "fifth column" (Andrew Sullivan). The change of heart exhibited by the Post in recent op/ed pieces - such as today's - are small consolation: the damage has been done. Already in March 2003 as the US prepared to drop its first bombs on Baghdad William Greider wrote in The Nation:
It's too late for nuanced evasions, too late for the Post to reposition its divisions to the rear. It sold this war, and now if America becomes the author of massive violence in a war of choice, not necessity, the Post will be implicated in the bloody consequences.
The Washington Post's outrage concerning the Human Rights First report is also hypocritical, since on a regular basis they print columns by the pundit Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer is perhaps the best-known apologist for torture among the Washington neocons. In his WaPo columns he calls for military actions against Iran, and demonizes Islam. His hatred of Muslims can only be characterized as racist (anti-Muslim racism is perfectly acceptable in the US mainstream media). So yes, the Washington Post is correct in criticizing the war crimes and lack of accountability by the Bush administration, but until it acknowledges its own - ongoing - complicity it is not a credible voice of moral clarity.