Friday, May 27, 2005

Abusing the Koran, and our trust

Joe Conason has a new piece up at Salon advancing the Koran desecration story. If you're not a subscriber at Salon, be prepared to watch a little ad to get your free site pass (clever, que no?). It's relatively painless.

Anyway, to summarize briefly: A Defense Department civilian employee assigned to military intelligence units gave Pentagon investigators a sworn statement last summer in which he described what happened when an interrogator in Afghanistan "took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it." Result: The detainees rioted.

The civilian employee goes on to describe the policy of
"Pride and Ego Down," a means of breaking down the resistance of hard-case detainees.

Let's pause here, take a deep breath, and review the situation.

Newsweek was wrong. Even if someone someday somewhere finds proof that a Koran was flushed down a toilet (can you say "call a plumber?"), Newsweek will still be wrong. Journalism is materialistic. Truth isn't. Hence, Newsweek's standard is provable truth, and it fell down on that job. Nothing changes that.

The United States government has changed the rules for intelligence gathering and interrogation. The White House says that those rules don't condone torture. The rest of the world, including me, is not convinced. Just look at what Amnesty International has to say. (Scott McClellan, by the way, responded to the AI report by saying "The United States is leading the way on human rights.")

Instead, evidence suggests that the United States government has engaged in systematic torture and abuse ever since we were attacked in 2001. When this evidence is presented, the White House blames the problem on non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers. Bad apples.

Now comes a sworn statement about Koran abuse. It could be right, it could be wrong, but it is sworn and it is a document. It exists. It must be dealt with. I find it initially credible, in large part, because it fits so clearly with the pattern that Sy Hersh has been uncovering for the past year or so.

Some will argue that such things shouldn't be reported. Some will argue that it's bias to point out only the bad things. There's a whole litany of diversionary complaints that surround such unhappy facts: un-American, troop-hating, liberal, elitist. None of them address what I consider to be the central issue: Does such behavior represent the America we want to be?

The issue should not be "Can we excuse our behavior?" but rather "Are we proud of what we do?" When the answer is no, then we must reconsider our actions, make sincere corrections and do what is possible to repair the damage. If that's good advice for Newsweek, shouldn't it be good advice for the White House?

For those of us in the news business, at whatever level, these are all important questions. The media has been blamed for practically every problem in the country, and if we look at things honestly, there are lots of things we do poorly. We are not blameless -- far from it. We simply have to change.

But what lesson should we learn? Is the conservative critique the one we should pay the most heed?

If the White House critique is the conservative critique, then the answer is no. We are far from perfect, but journalists as a group are far more committed to truthfulness and integrity than is the White House Press Office.