There has been something artificially over-heated about the international reaction to the video of four American soldiers urinating on the bodies of their dead Taliban enemies in Afghanistan. It was, of course, a fairly disgusting thing to do. But all the breastbeating about how the men's "egregious inhumanity" had brought "disgrace to their armed forces" and "dishonor to their nation" had something of bluster about it. How could anybody do such a thing, asked people who had never been to war, heard their wounded friends scream or seen them die, blown to pieces, before their very eyes.
There may yet be demonstrations and deadly riots around the world in protest. But I suspect not. This is no Abu Ghraib, for the scenes of degraded torture in that Iraqi prison were inflicted upon the living rather than the dead. But what the two have in common is that both have exposed a systematic pattern of abuse in a culture which had been nurtured or authorized at higher levels.
The Taliban, for all their perfunctory condemnation, have announced that the video will not affect the process of political negotiating that has begun in Afghanistan. As part of a deal to bring a modicum of stability in that country ahead of the withdrawal of US combat troops in 2014, Washington has offered to allow them to open a political office in Qatar. The Taliban are far more concerned about that than the desecration of three dead bodies. They and their al-Qa'ida allies are, after all, happy enough to desecrate living bodies, stoning to death young women who have had the ill fortune to be raped, or cutting the throats of hostages and filming it for the internet.
Bad things happen in war. When men have been under extreme fire, or seen their best friend die, anger and hatred flow freely. Enemies are dehumanized. Contempt for the other is a battlefield weapon. Young soldiers – and nearly 40 per cent of the US Marine Corps are below the age of 22 – are prone to callow as well as gallows humor. Some of them do stupid things. With a total of 90,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the real wonder is that there haven't been more videos like this. British soldiers did worse things in the Second World War. They just weren't able to video it and stick it on YouTube.
There is something far more disturbing at work here. It was at play, too, last week at the end of the two 30-month long investigations into reports that members of MI5 and MI6 were complicit in the torture of terrorist suspects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was not enough evidence against any named individual to bring charges. But they have decided to pursue two cases involving other allegations that the British secret services handed Libyan dissidents over to Gaddafi's torturers when the maverick Libyan was persuaded by Tony Blair to switch sides in the "war on terror". Among those now to be investigated is a woman interrogator from MI6 and two other female agents.
The urination and rendition debacles share another common factor. Both serve to draw public attention to the little men, and women, involved at the sharp end of these dirty situations. And that draws attention away from the real culprits who make the polices or set the culture in which such dubious practices thrive.
All the charges made by suspected terrorists about our intelligence and security services cannot be accepted at face value. Even so, the documents that were discovered when Gaddafi fled from Tripoli suggested that a cozy conspiracy over rendition had been authorized at a pretty senior British level. Already the top spooks and politicians are squaring up each to blame the other.
Sources in the security services are briefing that rendition operations were "ministerially authorized government policy", hinting that they must have been signed off by Jack Straw, foreign secretary between 2001-06, under section seven of the Intelligence Services Act, the clause the popular press likes to describe as a "license to kill". The politicians of the day are countering by pointing out that the Tripoli documents could be interpreted as suggesting that MI6's then head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen, could have been the authorizer. It might have been neither of them. It is all very opaque.
The same is true in the United States where it is unclear what are the forces which are preventing President Obama from keeping his election promise to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay where 171 prisoners have now been held without trial for 10 years. They are deemed "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of punishment first, trial later – or never. Indeed, far from closing the camp as he pledged, Obama this month signed into law a bill which prevents the transfer of the prisoners to the US mainland or to other countries. Hopes for the closure of the camp are now dead.
The focus on individual wrong-doers obscures this bigger picture. But if we cannot pin down who is to blame, what is clear is that something is being eroded in the West's idea of what should be the ethical norms by which a civilized country acts. There is a new tolerance of acts outside the law.
No intelligence service can do its job without dealing with unsavory regimes. And no soldiering unit can build the comradeship needed on the frontline without engendering a sense of animus against the enemy. But when in court the Master of the Rolls criticizes the behavior of a British interrogator accused of collusion with torture as "dubious" – and brands him as less than "frank" about what happened – it is disturbing to hear the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, describe the same agent as a "courageous individual" who would now be able to continue his work in support of national security.
Perhaps the man is blameless. But someone here is not. If that agent was not acting on his own initiative, who authorized his activities? The guidelines under which he and his fellows in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya were operating should be published so that the public can trace responsibility for his actions up the security service's chain of command, and perhaps beyond.
It is easier, of course, to find a few little men, or women, to blame. But it is not our ordinary soldiers, or even spies, who are pissing from the greatest height on the values which are supposed to be what separate us from our enemies.