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.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

    The Summit of Climate Hopes

    Presidents, prime ministers, and policymakers gather in Paris today for the One Planet Summit. But with no senior US representative attending, is the 2015 Paris climate agreement still viable?

  2. Trump greets his supporters The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America

    • In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently sold out the blue-collar, socially conservative whites who brought him to power, while pursuing policies to enrich his fellow plutocrats. 

    • Sooner or later, Trump's core supporters will wake up to this fact, so it is worth asking how far he might go to keep them on his side.
  3. Agents are bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

    The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

    A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.

  4.  An inside view of the 'AknRobotics' Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    Two Myths About Automation

    While many people believe that technological progress and job destruction are accelerating dramatically, there is no evidence of either trend. In reality, total factor productivity, the best summary measure of the pace of technical change, has been stagnating since 2005 in the US and across the advanced-country world.

  5. A student shows a combo pictures of three dictators, Austrian born Hitler, Castro and Stalin with Viktor Orban Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

    The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies

    The Hungarian government has released the results of its "national consultation" on what it calls the "Soros Plan" to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

  6. Project Syndicate

    DEBATE: Should the Eurozone Impose Fiscal Union?

    French President Emmanuel Macron wants European leaders to appoint a eurozone finance minister as a way to ensure the single currency's long-term viability. But would it work, and, more fundamentally, is it necessary?

  7. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now