Friday, May 06, 2005

(Not-so-)Merrie England

Lynndie England, that is. The poster girl for the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. You know, the one holding the leash, the one pointing at the genitals of the prisoners. You know, the homely one. You know, the scapegoat.

Well, England's case was thrown out on Wednesday by a military judge who rejected her guilty plea and declared a mistrial. Here's what happened: England was initially charged with 19 counts and faced a combined maximum prison term of 38 years. This was knocked down to four counts of maltreating prisoners, two counts of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, and one count of committing an indecent act. This plea agreement meant a combined maximum prison term of 11 years for these seven counts, but a deal between the prosecution and the defence would have resulted in a lesser prison term (details of the deal were not released). So England pled guilty in order to secure a lesser prison term, and this meant admitting responsibility for her actions at Abu Ghraib. But then her superior (and lover) Charles Graner testified. Graner is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the scandal. Where England took the blame for what happened, however, Graner said that she, like him, was just following orders. The military judge, Col. James Pohl, thus rejected her guilty plea. In other words, England's assumption of blame contradicted both Graner's testimony and her own explanation to the judge of what happened (she, too, had initially claimed that she was just following orders). The judge essentially ruled that she didn't believe in her own guilt and threw out her plea agreement (this is possible in federal and military cases, not in civilian criminal cases, where a defendant may plead guilty without admitting guilt). More, he threw out her case, which now goes back to her commander at Fort Hood, Texas, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz.

I have no doubt that what England did was wrong. Those horrendous pictures that for a time were all over the media (before the short-sighted media and their memory-deficient consumers grew tired of the whole sordid affair) are irrefutable evidence of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. And England, like Graner, should be punished. But isn't it obvious what's going on? They're scapegoats. Graner was surely following orders and may or may deserve the severe punishment he's received, but there's no way England should be punished with a long prison term. She did what she was ordered to go in a climate of abuse that was sanctioned by the highest reaches of the military and civilian establishment, including the highest reaches of the Bush Administration. But while Graner and England are brought up on charges, their superiors are doing nicely. Alberto Gonzales, former White House counsel, is now Attorney General. Donald Rumsfeld is still Secretary of Defense. And no general has yet been punished... Oh, wait. There's one. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, head of the Army Reserve unit that was involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, has been demoted to Colonel (three other generals have been cleared of wrongdoing). And that's it. Otherwise, it's been all low-level, as AP reports:

More than a dozen other lower-ranking officers, whose names were not released, also received various punishments:
  • Three majors were given letters of reprimand and one of the three also was given an unspecified administrative punishment.
  • Three captains were court-martialed, one captain was given an other-than-honorable discharge from the Army, five captains received letters of reprimand, and one was given an unspecified administrative punishment
  • Two first lieutenants were court-martialed, another got a letter of reprimand and one was given administrative punishment.
  • One second lieutenant was given an other-than-honorable discharge and another was given a letter of reprimand.
  • Two chief warrant officers were court-martialed.
Majors, captains, lieutenants, chief warrant officers. That's not justice, that's scapegoating.

Lynndie England is a poor woman from a bad place who found herself in an even worse one. She is hardly the poster girl of the American military, let alone of American sexuality -- and that might explain why she's been so easy to scapegoat -- but is that really where the buck stops? As Richard Cohen puts in an excellent column in today's Washington Post, England is "an odd, unlikely puppet on the strings of fate," "some sort of anti-Statue of Liberty, the female personification of what some people insisted America had become". Cohen sums her story up well:

"She is the sort of woman who gets used by others, most often men. Powerless everywhere in life except on her end of the leash, she just had to come night after night to the section of Abu Ghraib where Graner held sway. She was admonished for this -- her real work was suffering -- but Graner drew her. She knew that what she was doing was wrong -- "I could have said no,'' she told the military court. "I knew it was wrong.'' But in all likelihood, only theoretically could she have said no. Some women always say yes.

"How sad, how ironic, that this wee woman should have become the personification of supposed American arrogance. Like all those convicted for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, she is one of America's little people -- not an officer, not even regular Army, but one of a collection of nobodies just trying to get somewhere better. Lynndie England was one of them, and she is suffering for that -- officially for abusing prisoners, actually for being a loser. Whatever the outcome of her trial, the sentence will be life."

It's a sad story. I have no excuse for what happened at Abu Ghraib and for what surely must be going on at other American facilities around the world (and for what's happening in foreign facilities where the U.S. is shipping some of its prisoners for torture). The abuse of prisoners by the American military is a stain on the United States and a serious roadblock in winning the "soft" war for the hearts and minds of those who would inflict terror on us or who otherwise repudiate our way of life.

Once upon a time, the noble thing to do was to take responsibility at the highest levels, not least in the Oval Office. Now, the ignoble thing to do is to assume no responsibility whatsoever and to blame convenient cogs somewhere down the hierarchy (while being promoted and otherwise rewarded). The buck doesn't stop with Lynndie England, but she, and others like her, will take the fall. That's "justice" for you.

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