Americans woke up last week to discover the underside of the war on terror, and they didn't like the sight of it.
The reaction to pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers has shocked and disgusted the country. The fallout from the scandal has been immediate, and may very well have an impact on the outcome of the conflict in Iraq, not to mention the general election in November.
But for all the finger-pointing, rationalization and political opportunism going on, there is a precedent here a precedent of a democracy dealing with charges of torture in a counterinsurgency. And I'm not referring to events three or four decades ago in Southeast Asia.
That precedent, of course, is the State of Israel's ongoing battle with Palestinian terrorists. That brutal war with a ruthless enemy has involved the Israel Defense Force in an ugly, thankless conflict that has been accompanied by charges of abuse of Arab prisoners dating back to the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.
The parallels between the activities of the IDF in the territories and American forces in Iraq are obvious. Both armies have operated in hostile environments, where literal danger lurks around every corner. Both Israeli and American soldiers have huge technological advantages over their foes. That edge is often neutralized by terrain. But even more often, their tactics are constrained by rules of engagement that forbid them from causing civilian casualties wherever they can be avoided.
While Palestinian terror groups and various Iraqi insurgent factions seem to care nothing for the safety of their own people, their Israeli and American enemies have shown that they are willing to risk their own soldiers' lives to limit the suffering of those caught in the middle of the fighting.
NOT SO EASILY DISMISSED
Though civilian casualties have occurred as a result of Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza, and American action in Iraq, atrocity stories of heartless soldiers slaughtering Palestinians and Iraqis have been shown to be terrible exaggerations and more often than not, brazen lies.
But as with the documented outrages that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, lurid tales of what happens to Palestinians captured by Israelis are not so easily dismissed. Over the years, accusations of abuse of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel have been legion. Amnesty International has been particularly pointed in its criticisms of Israel on this score, as has the Israeli group B'Tselem. Friends of Israel have tended to dismiss reports of Amnesty and B'Tselem as being inspired by the political bias of both groups. Amnesty has little sympathy for Israel in general, while B'Tselem boasts a leftist agenda of opposition to Israel's presence in the territories.
That's all true, but it's also true that a great many of their accusations about Israeli abuse of Palestinian prisoners are real. Israel's own Supreme Court admitted as much in 1999, when it outlawed the "legal" torture of Palestinians under interrogation.
The Israeli court went to some trouble to outline the inadmissability of torture, even though it was highly likely that some prisoners might have information about planned terrorist activities that would save lives. Despite the court's ban on torture, debate on the issue continued.
If anything, the reaction to the decision seemed to make clear that most Israelis were still in favor of "physical force" in interrogations. In March 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he supported torture because when "ticking bombs" were at stake, "it is necessary to immediately save life from a concrete danger of a serious attack, and no other reasonable course exists to achieve this result."
While the physical and psychological pressures exerted on those prisoners were not the sort of obscene sexual humiliation exhibited in the photos taken by American prison guards in Iraq, the substance is often the same. The goal is to break down the prisoner and extract needed information about enemy activities.
It is doubtful that many Israelis or Americans, for that matter would have any scruples about doing a lot more to prisoners than humiliate them if it meant that the information extracted would prevent a suicide bombing, whether it was an Israeli bus or an American skyscraper.
That's why, despite the well-documented reports of B'Tselem on the issue of the treatment of prisoners, the issue has very little traction with the Israeli public. It takes no great leap of imagination to say that Palestinian terror suspects are probably still subjected to physical and psychological pressures.
Critics of the American effort in Iraq can say, with justice, that the sort of goings-on shown in the photos from Abu Ghraib have nothing to do with security concerns debated by Israelis, and everything to do with the moronic sadism of the guards.
But the problem here is that even though most of us don't care what interrogators do to certified "bad guys" linked to ticking bombs, when a judicial or prison system allows torture in some cases, it's awfully difficult if not impossible to prevent it from happening in other instances where there is no conceivable justification.
That is a harsh fact Israelis have come to grips with in recent years, as they noted the increasingly brutal nature of Israeli border guard and police activity, even when it had nothing to do with the Palestinians or potential security threats.
You can't legalize torture or abrogate the rights of some prisoners without that sensibility leaching into the rest of the system. Israel's experience is the proof of that.
At the same time, we must also avoid lapsing into a self-righteous cocoon, in which we'll give up the fight against terrorists in the name of avoiding more Abu Ghraibs. As a country at war and like it or not, America is at war with an enemy bent on our destruction we can't expect our troops to always play by strict civil-libertarian rules. Nor can we cut and run in Iraq in order to avoid the possibility of other scandals without paying a price in the long run.
There is no calculus that can guide us with certitude toward the right mix of concern for human rights and the need for security; still, we should try to find it. The only certainty is that danger faces us every step of the way.