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The Shame of Abu Ghraib

May 15, 2004

There is so much to admire in this week’s Torah Portion. We are commanded by God to allow the land to replenish itself. Just as we need rest from the rigors of work, so too does the earth. We enable it to renew itself, undisturbed by human hands that would otherwise be busily engaged in plowing, planting and harvesting. Time and time again in this Torah Portion, we are reminded to give the land “a Sabbath of complete rest in the seventh year” {Leviticus 25:4}. In that year, the land will produce for us but we are not to “sow [our] fields or prune [our] vineyards” {25:4}. The Torah Portion also speaks about ethical relationships: “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” {Leviticus 25:14}.

“You shall not wrong one another.”

This has been a difficult week for America. There is no excuse for what happened in Abu Ghraib. In the seventh year, we are not to “sow our fields”: what of the seeds that were planted in Abu Ghraib? What bitter harvest will we reap? I have spoken on several occasions from this pulpit about my feelings in regard to our country’s presence in Iraq and I will not revisit what hardly seemed prophetic at the time, but just common sense. What I want to say now is something that I have been struggling with this past week. I speak primarily to our young adults who are here today.

Surely God must be crying. Basic human values have been desecrated by U.S. soldiers and officers at Abu Ghraib prison. What is astounding is their common refrain: “We were just following orders.” They do not speak for me or for you. They do not reflect the values of the vast number of American men and women serving our country throughout the world and in Iraq in particular. Instead of following the injunction, “You shall not wrong one another,” they seek shelter in the refrain, “We were just following orders.” The great ethical evasion: “We only did it because someone higher up ordered us to do so!”; “I took pictures because someone told me to take them”; “I beat, handcuffed, and humiliated the prisoners because someone told me to do it.” Not one word about sorrow or regrets. It is not often that so few have done so much to besmirch the reputations of so many.

Militant Islam preaches violence as its mantra. Its legacy is death. It affirms martyrdom, not hope. Its adherents send children on suicide missions: young girls; adolescent boys; pregnant women. They believe the worst about us: about our values, our culture, and our form of government. The horrible deaths of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg tell us all we need to know about the nature of our adversary. This is why what happened in Abu Ghraib is so infuriating. The depravity of those responsible allows the exception to define us. Abu Ghraib is the slippery slope on which none of us stand and from which all of us recoil. The Biblical imperative, “You shall not wrong one another” {Leviticus 25:14} did not occur to the perpetrators of the horrors at Abu Ghraib, but our response to it speaks eloquently on our behalf. We are experiencing a collective, national crisis of conscience, and we will not let this matter go. There are undoubtedly some who feel that we are making too much of this and we are too public about it. They would prefer to have the Pentagon hold internal investigations, allow the military to convene secret hearings, and accede to the request, “Let’s put this behind us as quickly as possible.” But despite the worst that our most intractable enemies believe about us, this is not who we are as a nation. We want to know the truth. We want to know who could have prevented what happened, and we want to put safeguards in place to prevent anything remotely resembling what happened at Abu Ghraib from ever happening again. In Congressional hearings we are raising difficult and necessary questions: Who knew what and when? Who knew something and said nothing? Where were the broken links in the chain of command? Who ignored the evidence? We are offended, disgusted and enraged, except for conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh who laughs it off, calling it “blowing off steam.” “It’s what people do when they are stressed,” is his justification for Abu Ghraib. Shame on him and his minions.

“You shall not wrong one another” {Leviticus 25:14} is a Biblical verse that resonates loudly this week in particular. Wronging the other person starts with what we say, and escalates to what we do or refrain from doing, because we don’t have the backbone to stand up for what is right.

You and I can agree or disagree about our country’s presence in Iraq. You may feel that we went in with the best possible advice and were aware of realistic dangers. I believe we went in because our government fit the information we created into the formula we needed, and that we were unrealistic about the cultural and religious terrain we were entering, expecting Iraqis to greet us with open arms rather than clenched fists. Whatever you and I believe, the pictures we have seen unite us in the sentiment that we are horrified at the depths to which too many sank and the glibness with which they say, “I was just following orders.”

The lesson for us is this: do not be a follower, be a leader. When you see something that is wrong, stand up to correct it. When you hear something offensive, do something about it. Stand on the side of dignity and decency. Through your actions you will condemn those who say, “I was just following orders.” You can make a difference, a positive difference, unlike those who used their power in Abu Ghraib to dehumanize people who, like us, are also created in the Divine image.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin