Surprisingly, two important aspects of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal remain unexplored in the media's lemming rush for higher ratings.
First, the relentless public political pressure on the Bush administration to issue strong words of condemnation could complicate the criminal prosecution of those accused of the crimes. Few politicians from either party have missed an opportunity to express their outrage and disgust.
Interestingly, it may be just such public statements, especially those of the president and commander-in-chief, which could complicate and potentially derail the prosecution of those accused of these crimes. Article 37 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice strictly prohibits anyone in the chain of command or subject to the UCMJ from attempting to influence the action of a court-martial or any other military tribunal. The commander-in-chief and the beleaguered secretary of defense may fall into this category, as could any member of Congress and Senate condemning the alleged abuses and those responsible before trial.
As in the civilian justice system, the accused in a military proceeding is entitled to the presumption of innocence. The statements made by any highly placed civilian officials critical of those accused of military crimes may be litigated as alleged pre-judgments, and accusations of unlawful command influence are bound to follow.
This reasoning, along with the stated Geneva Convention prohibitions on publishing degrading photographs of prisoners, may have played a part in the Pentagon's recent decision not to release any further photographs.
Second, the pervasive news coverage may be just as dehumanizing to the Iraqi and Arab people as the humiliation meted out by the captors as depicted in the photographs. Both only can compound Iraqi dishonor.
Would we exhibit pictures of U.S. personnel being tortured with the same journalistic zeal? Would we continually publish these images if they were of anyone other than Iraqis? How would you feel about the display if these were your daughters or sons? Why isn't the knowledge and prurient descriptions of the degradations enough?
The best we can hope for now is that the world, and the Arab and Muslim world in particular, will come to realize that our national moral indignation is genuine, and that the public condemnation (despite the potential legal ramifications) and the legal investigations and subsequent trials demonstrate the strength of democracy and the rule of law. As for the media, the republishing of the Iraqi photographs has become just another episodic news story that has gained a life of its own. Those outlets republishing the photographs should be ashamed, and their editorial staff should get a conscience.
The military, of course, must continue to endure the hardships in Iraq. The chief-of-staff of the Army, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and Acting Secretary of the Army R.J. Browlee recognize that the pervasive and negative news coverage over this event could harm military morale and diminish public confidence in the institution. They understand that the organization they lead must maintain the trust of the American people and that in part this trust is a result of setting and enforcing high standards.
At heart, our military is a reflection of our nation's values, and it is unfortunate that the alleged actions of a few can erroneously cast doubt on the integrity of a whole nation. As they wrote in a recent public statement to the Army, "Integrity is non-negotiable," and "discipline is doing what's right when no one is watching."
Lance Eldridge is a retired lieutenant colonel
in the Army. He serves as the assistant campus dean for instruction at Colorado Mountain College and is a member of the
Steamboat Pilot & Today Editorial Board.