"Men heap together all the mistakes of their lives and create a monster called Destiny," Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, and now Destiny has arrived at the door of the United States.
Ugly she is, and grinning.
What sense can we make of the hideous photographs that have come out of Saddam Hussein's prison in Iraq? I don't think we will ever understand them, as we will never understand the minds of mass murderers and torturers. But how can we live with them? How can we adapt them to our reality? How can we move past them?
The truth is, we can never move past them.
What can we make, for example, of the young grinning female soldier
-- identified as Sabrina Harman, 26 years old, from Alexandria, Virginia -- crouched behind a pyramid of alive, hooded, naked Iraqi males. She poses for the camera as a male soldier stands behind her, his arms crossed, also grinning. (The photos can be seen on-line at The New Yorker site - newyorker.com).
This is a picture that chills me to the bone. As a symbol, it supplants several years of tragic symbols, beginning with that twisted piece of architectural geometry left standing after the World Trade Center towers fell. It even supplants the immediately-iconic photograph of the hooded Iraqi wearing only a poncho made of a striped blanket, standing barefoot on a little box with electrodes attached to his hands and genitals.
President Bush can try to pump us up with staged photographs of American soldiers pulling down a statue of Saddam, or himself, dressed in a flight uniform with a padded crotch, stepping onto the deck of an aircraft carrier while a banner made at the White House claims "Mission Accomplished."
But how do we accept the photographic reality of ourselves as revealed in those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison? That we demonized these people? That we tortured them? That we humiliated them? That we stripped them of their humanity, sexually abused them, shamed them in the eyes of their God and shamed ourselves in the eyes of the world?
For the millions in the Arab world who already believe that women should have no civil rights, what could be more devastating, than that grinning female soldier? She revels in her ultimate power over these men. Instead of bringing the ideals of democracy - with its lovely strands of feminism - to the Arab world, we've given them a million years of reasons to keep women in burqas and maybe even to start binding their feet.
The backlash will be horrendous. Out of a people who already dislike and distrust Americans, we have created a passionate hatred that will last for generations. We have bequeathed endless war to our grandchildren and to their grandchildren, created an enmity that will last forever in the hearts and minds of a people who think that holding a grudge for a millennium is the natural way of things.
These Iraqis - we call them prisoners. We are "softening" them for "interrogation." What could possibly be their crimes? Working for Saddam? But until Bush unilaterally and for no good reason invaded their country, what they did was perfectly legal. For fighting against Americans? Why is that a crime, when the Americans are the invaders of their country?
I try and fail to understand it in terms of role reversal. What if, for no real reason other than their leader's hatred for our leader, their army arrives here? What if their army is - and this is difficult to imagine
Say they take Washington. Say they find Bush hiding in a rat hole. They can take him to the Netherlands, or to a court in their country or ours. They can try him for war crimes. Would they have the right to put all the people working in the West Wing in prison? Criminalize Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Colin Powell? Put all their pictures on playing cards? Throw them into jail? Strip them naked? Sodomize them? Take photographs of the torture? And grin?
No matter how much we may dislike the Bush Administration and their policies, they aren't criminals. They're doing what they believe is best for their country, wrong-minded as they may be. They remind me of a poem by Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska called "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself": "The buzzard never says it is to blame/ The panther wouldn't know was scruples mean/When the piranha strikes it feels no shame/If snakes had hands they'd claim their hands were clean... On this third planet of the sun/Among the signs of bestiality/A clear conscience is Number One."
We claimed we were bringing peace and freedom and democracy. Instead we brought the other side of America, our trailer trash minds, our racism, our misguided sense of superiority, our ignorance of other cultures, our greed and our stupidity. We brought everything that threatens to destroy civilization - ours and everyone else's - not further in its creation.
The Armed Forces can court martial, "discipline" and fire as many soldiers, intelligence operatives and mercenaries as they can. The president can go on Arab television, wave his fist and denounce whomever he wants. The damage is done.
Just after the war in Iraq began, George Monbiot of the UK's The Guardian said, "They have unlocked the spirit of war, and it could be unwilling to return to its casket until it has traversed the world." I think we have to face the fact that he was right.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in southern Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org