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.

Yet shame might be more plausible with regard to US behavior in Iraq. The source of that shame is not any particular act, but simply being part of a nation that could behave so arrogantly as to disregard international law and the United Nations by invading a country that was not threatening America, and then sending untrained military police to keep prisoners in line by any means they happen to devise.