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The Miami Herald

Arrogance, Indiscipline Come Down From the Top

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Return with me to Abu Ghraib. You remember it. You may not want to, but you do.

The Iraqi prison was the epicenter of an international scandal in 2004 when it was revealed that U.S. soldiers were mistreating detainees, forcing them to stand in stress positions, sexually humiliating them, menacing them with dogs, denying them clothes, dragging them on leashes, threatening them with electrocution.

All of it was captured in photos that shocked the world. One of the most memorable showed then-21-year-old Army private Lynndie England, cigarette poking from a idiotic grin, index fingers cocked like guns as she pointed to the genitals of a naked Iraqi man.

Bloodless legalese

We stared at those images and asked how this could have happened, how American soldiers could have become so degraded and undisciplined, could have wandered so far afield from the moorings of simple, human decency. Many answers were proffered. Mob mentality. Dehumanizing conditions. Lack of oversight.

But as the years have passed, a truer answer has coalesced. Where did these young soldiers get the idea that the rules were suspended, that free rein was given, that they could do whatever they wanted to the men in their custody?

It came from the top.

The latest proof: a recently declassified 2003 memo from John Yoo, then a Justice Department lawyer. The memo, eventually rescinded by Justice, authorized torture as a means of interrogation, a finding that carried the force of law.

Much of the media coverage of the 81-page document has focused on the -- and this word is unavoidably ironic -- bloodless legalese in which Yoo contemplates the permissibility of putting a prisoner's eyes out, slitting his tongue, scalding him with water, dosing him with mind-altering drugs, disfiguring him with acid.

But what is also appalling is Yoo's contention -- repeatedly restated in the memo -- that in time of war the president enjoys virtually unfettered authority over, and is accountable to no one for, the treatment of prisoners.

Presidential authority

Legal scholars have accused Yoo of sloppy reasoning. Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale and American universities, told the International Herald Tribune the document was a monument to the ''imperial presidency.'' Yoo disagrees. He calls the memo a ''boilerplate'' defense of presidential authority.

Your humble correspondent doesn't know from legal scholarship. He does know this: Seven years ago when the nation was attacked and Americans wanted to pitch in, wanted to help, wanted to sacrifice, our leaders told us to go shopping. Prop the economy up, they said. Don't worry about the war. Let us handle it. Go shopping.

And we did. Nor, scared as we were, eager for the illusion of security as we were, did we look too closely or examine too intently the things that were being done in our names. We became, many of us, expert at ignoring the screams from behind the curtain, discounting the growing mountain of evidence that things were not as we had been told, brushing off nagging questions about what we have become and how that does not square with what we are supposed to be.

We shopped, and did not fret overmuch about the price of our moral laxity.

Maybe that's because the price is paid in tiny increments of our national honor yet somehow, never by those who most deserve to foot the bill. So that, seven years later, George W. Bush is still president of the United States, Donald Rumsfeld is working on his memoirs, John Yoo is a law professor at UC Berkeley.

But Lynndie England is a single mother, on parole and looking for work, living in a trailer with her folks.

--Leonard Pitts Jr.

© 2008 The Miami Herald

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