Guilt and Shame in Abu Ghraib

Whenever governments lose moral authority, as when their police seize evidence in violation of the Constitution, their case for conviction suffers. As the late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, government must remain the "omnipresent teacher" of our highest ideals. In the Abu Ghraib scandal, the army and the Bush administration have hardly been good teachers, and the public and the media have also been complicit. How, then, can the collectively guilty bring charges and single out some suspects as individually guilty?

To be sure, the extent of collective liability for torture and other indecencies invites debate. Should the public's appropriate reaction be guilt or shame? Many have read and seen enough to feel acute shame about being part of a nation that could go to war with righteous ideas and end up replicating, if not aggravating, the abuses of the "rogue state" Americans called their enemy.

Guilt is based, they say, on what we do; shame, on who we are. Neither the vast majority of US soldiers nor Americans as individuals have done anything wrong in Iraq (apart from the invasion itself), and thus might balk at allegations of collective guilt for the atrocities. Yet in other cases of collective action, we willingly affirm collective guilt and a shared duty to make reparations. This was the widely accepted approach toward German liability for the Holocaust, and there are many who urge the same approach toward America's responsibility for slavery.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

To read this article from our archive, please log in or register now. After entering your email, you'll have access to two free articles from our archive every month. For unlimited access to Project Syndicate, subscribe now.

required

By proceeding, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which describes the personal data we collect and how we use it.

Log in

http://prosyn.org/tJnXx3q;

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.