Donald Rumsfeld pulled the old "full responsibility" scam again last Friday.
In his opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, our unflappable secretary of defense said he took "full responsibility" for the abuse of prisoners by American service men and women in Iraq.
I first became aware of the "full responsibility" scam when it was used by President Ronald Reagan following the October 23, 1983, truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Reagan stood before the world and said he took "full responsibility" for the deaths of 241 Marines and other military personnel. Then our responsible president went back to sleep, to awaken two days later to order the invasion of Grenada, thus inventing the now famous "wag the dog" scenario.
Reagan's guilty plea didn't cost him anything.
Ten years after the Lebanon tragedy, on April 19, 1993, American paramilitary forces attacked the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, an attack that concluded with the deaths of about 80 men, women and children.
Although there were criminals holed up in the compound, their ghastly end was far beyond what anybody had anticipated. Janet Reno, who was Bill Clinton's attorney general at the time, glibly and repeatedly took "responsibility" for the horror of Waco. Then she went back to work, continuing her post in the president's cabinet and continuing to collect her salary.
Reno had learned from Reagan. Rumsfeld on Friday demonstrated he has learned from both. Publicly "taking responsibility" for misdeeds or errors has become an acceptable way to turn down the heat.
You and I have no idea of the extent of the atrocities committed against American-held prisoners since Sept. 11, 2001, but you can bet your life it goes far beyond what is now known by the public.
President George W. Bush, a one-time cheerleader at Yale, has been the primary cheerleader for abuse against our perceived enemies.
He has declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea as evil. In his opinion, Iraqis who continue to fight against the invaders of their country are "evil-doers." (Rumsfeld likes to call them "dead-enders.")
Words have power. When spoken by people with great power, words have great power.
President Bush seems incapable of going before an audience without mentioning the criminal disasters of Sept. 11, 2001. His intent is clear. He doesn't feel the need to be cautious. He enjoys the power. He wants to keep the nation fearful and angry.
It works. We are a fearful and angry nation. We are angry at anyone designated as enemy. We are even angry at each other. Pro-war people are angry at anti-war people, anti-war people angry at pro-war people.
Given the national fear and anger, and the loathing of our enemies, all encouraged by the Bush administration, it is not in the least surprising that undertrained service men and women abuse helpless prisoners.
We have been abusing foreign prisoners ever since Sept. 11, 2001. We refuse to call them prisoners. We call them "enemy combatants" or "detainees" or some other such poppycock. We deny them what we Americans believe to be "inalienable rights."
We interrogate them with subtle forms of torture, and then boast about it. We think constant exposure to annoying noise and sleep depravation are funny. When we consider those tools of subtle tortune inadequate, we turn our prisoners over to other governments for more serious questioning and torture.
I have a little experience with the role of prisoner and of military policeman. In 1951, while in the Army, I volunteered to go to Korea. Then, when I got to Camp Stoneman out here in California, I went into Berkeley one night to say goodbye to a new girlfriend and returned to learn the troop ship I was supposed to be on had sailed without me. That earned my 30 days in the Stoneman Stockade. I served 18 of the 30, then got shipped out.
When I arrived in Japan, I was assigned to the 45th Military Police Company, which transferred to Korea shortly thereafter, replacing the 1st Calvary. I pulled my first shift as a military policeman on Christmas Eve 1951. I had had no training. I had been a clerk. I knew how to type. I didn't even know how to put on a brassard (that black armband with the white letters "MP" on it).
In the Stoneman Stockade, I witnessed prisoner abuse and was a victim of it. One MP corporal loved to order the prisoners to attention, and then bait them into moving. As soon as one moved, he'd say, "You're supposed to be at attention. That's one gig." Each gig, or demerit, meant an extra half hour of close-order drill at night, when everybody else was resting. Most of the prisoners drilled every night. A common offense was "hair too long," sometimes given two days in a row after a haircut in-between.
I have never responded kindly to abusive authority, so I spent my last week in the stockade in solitary confinement -- because of a paint fight I'd had with a guy named Rodriquez and my refusal to apologize for it.
In the end, I went from jail to the police force, an irony I considered delicious. Particularly sweet was the end of the ride from Stoneman to Pier 96 in San Francisco, escorted by heavily armed MPs. As soon as we cleared the gangway, each of us former prisoners was handed an M-1 rifle.
Our MP company in Korea had a small criminal investigation detachment attached to it. The CID guys didn't mix with the rest of us, and they maintained a small stockade within our compound. It held Koreans, of both sexes. It was a mysterious place, as far as I was concerned, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
However, I was 20 years old. I believe that if I had been told to make those Koreans talk, by whatever means necessary, I would have become as abusive as those American prison guards in Iraq. Not likely as perverted, however.
Philip G. Zimbardo seems to be the world's expert on how guards and prisoners interact. In 1971, while at Stanford University, Professor Zimbardo conducted a now famous experiment using students as both guards and prisoners. What that experiment showed was that the students designated as "guards" quickly became abusive, students designated as "prisoners" quickly became submissive.
Zimbardo's experiment, which had to be cut short because the student "guards" were becoming too abusive, is fascinating. You can learn about it in detail at: www.zimbardo.com/zimbardo.html.
What Zimbardo's work demonstrates is that anyone charged with taking care of prisoners must be well-trained for the job. That obviously hasn't been the case with our military since Sept. 11, 2001.
What the exposure of our atrocities also teaches is that our leadership has gone against traditional American beliefs. One of our claims to respect has been our simple decency. George W. Bush's bellicose rhetoric, echoed by others in his administration, goes against our ideals.
Bush claims to be a disciple of the Christian Prince of Peace, and he commonly exhorts the God of Love, yet the rest of his rhetoric seems to belie those beliefs. Someone should point out to Bush the difference between a moral man and a moralistic one.
And Rumsfeld, who admits responsibility for war crimes, should accept that responsibility. He should return to civilian life.
Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and liberal iconoclast. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2004 SF Gate