" ... the language of the [Geneva Conventions] is undefined. It prohibits for example 'outrages upon personal dignity' and 'inhuman treatment ... '" - White House memo justifying President George W. Bush's decision to deny Iraqi detainees the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
It is almost as if Alberto Gonzales, who wrote that memo, and who is now the U.S. attorney general, was whispering this implied question into the ear of Army Pfc. Lynndie England.
It is as if she heard him, and then demonstrated for him and President Bush the definition of "outrages upon personal dignity," and had herself photographed committing them, and then sent the photos all around the world.
It is hard to avoid picturing this exchange because, in a real sense, it took place.
No, an army private would never be sent a memo by the White House counsel, even one that would come to haunt her and her country for years.
But this memo reached her, just the same. It reached England through the usual channels, which, in the military, always flow from top to bottom. She was at the bottom.
The memo was written about two years before England achieved her ugly fame in those photos showing her on duty at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees, committing outrages upon their personal dignity, as it were.
She wasn't the only one doing it. Many soldiers participated in the widely photographed abuses, though for some reason - maybe the combination of England's child-like face and the casual way she had with a dog leash attached to a man's neck - she became the international symbol of American depravity in Iraq.
She pleaded guilty yesterday to charges against her, and faces many years in prison.
It is ironic that a person such as she, with little education, no authority, and zero training as a prison guard, becomes the poster child for our depravity, while the authors of the American policy toward Iraqi detainees remain virtually untouched by the scandal.
The authors are Gonzales, who drafted the policy; President Bush, who approved it; and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who put it into effect.
The policy, which remains unchanged despite last year's revelations, basically gives the American military a free hand in dealing with prisoners or detainees it considers potential terrorists. Terrorism, in this view, changes all the rules.
"In my judgment," Gonzales wrote to Bush in his now famous "obsolete and quaint" memo of January 2002, "this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning enemy prisoners, and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary, privileges, scrip, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments."
In that memo, Gonzales was arguing against a counterpart in the State Department, who had asked that the Geneva Conventions be applied. The State Department memo, which reflected then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's view, warned that if Geneva was not observed by Americans in Iraq it would subject captured U.S. soldiers to torture and inhumane treatment.
For one thing, Gonzales replied, the conventions were dangerously non-specific about the meaning of certain prohibited practices such as "inhuman treatment" or "outrages upon personal dignity." For another, he said, terrorists were unlikely to observe the conventions anyway.
And furthermore, "it is difficult to predict the needs and circumstances that could arise in the course of the war on terrorism ... "
Since England and her co-defendants' arrests, the White House and the military have insisted that they were rogue operators - free-lance abusers of prisoners who acted on their own. The official military policy is to treat all prisoners humanely, the Pentagon has said.
That argument would be more convincing if the White House hadn't turned its back - pointedly and openly - on a human rights convention that has governed our soldiers' behavior in every war since the end of World War I.
Bush, Rumsfeld and Gonzales might as well have delivered to England and her fellow prison guards at Abu Ghraib a handbook in which these words - Prohibited: inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity - had been carelessly crossed out with a pencil.
© 2005 Newsday, Inc.