It is this American fetish for exhibitionism the soldiers applied to the people under their control in Iraq. Will our society's "civilization" care package to that country go beyond "one-man, one-vote" to such goodies as game shows that marry strangers for fun and money, and Swan-like self-mutilation in the pursuit of ever-illusive perfection and self-acceptance? (Perhaps, by way of apology, the Bush administration can offer the Abu Ghraib detainees a makeover. After they've been transformed into WASPs with 10 percent body fat, they can compete for an apprenticeship at Halliburton.)
The Iraqi detainees we've seen pictured naked on the floor of Abu Ghraib may be a vicious and scurrilous bunch; it's not without precedent for a liberating force to be so overwhelmed with revulsion at their captives' reckless disregard for life that a reckless disregard for life results: Witness Dwight Eisenhower's brutal treatment of German POWs after he had seen evidence of the atrocities committed at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.But we cannot claim to be on a "mission from God," or anything close to it, when our own people are taking snapshots of hooded, cruciform prisoners threatened with maiming by electrocution.
Americans' unique recipe for bread and circuses — those forms of diversion that keep a complacent and already disengaged populace further distracted while their leaders proceed to plunder them and everyone else — have followed us to Iraq. The populace there has yet to see much bread, but the circus has certainly arrived.
As this war degenerates into its own kind of reality show, with politicians on both sides vying for Election Day brownie points by criticizing one another's motives and agendas, perhaps we should seriously reconsider the legislative mechanisms by which we give our leaders the power to make war in our name. But more to the point right now, we should reject the temptation to self-deception, and feel outright shame at our soldiers' humiliation of those prisoners. Then, perhaps, we can begin to be true to one Founding Father's prescription: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."