Revenge is what it's all about
by Leon Satterfield
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," Act 3, Scene 1.
Despite the President's endless optimism, I grow more and more gloomy about our war in Iraq. The guys we're fighting there seem to be big on revenge. My unheeded advice to the President is to avoid giving them a pretext for revenge.
I say that because I once had a traumatic experience with revenge: sixty-some years ago, my little sister threw a fork at me. It missed my eye by an inch or two, whizzed by and broke out a window glass. Traumatized me. If it could do that to a window glass, what might it have done to my eye?
The cause, as I remember, was that I called her "goo-goo eyes" because she was wearing her first pair of glasses. I meant no harm. It just seemed an incredibly witty thing to say. But she took offense and very nearly took revenge. I've been wary of revenge ever since. But back to Iraq.
Some of our folks have behaved badly as guards at the Abu Ghraib prison (and, as the A.P. reported last week, at four other prisons where we've been holding Iraqi prisoners). One of the reasons for the misbehavior may be that the Bush administration decided more than two years ago that the Geneva Convention rules no longer applied to our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.
You remember the Geneva Conventions. They set minimum standards of decency with which prisoners of war must be treated. No torture. That sort of thing.
Newsweek reported last month that shortly after 9/11 the Justice Department "advised that President George W. Bush and the U.S. military did not have to comply with any international laws in the handling of detainees in the war on terrorism. It was that conclusion, say some critics, that laid the groundwork for aggressive interrogation techniques that led to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq."
The Justice Department's rationale, Newsweek says, was "that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to any Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters being flown to the detention center at Guantanamo because Afghanistan was a 'failed state' whose militia did not have any status under international treaties."
That sounds like we can play as dirty as we want with prisoners we decide are from a "failed state."
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was quoted by Molly Ivins as saying "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
Now if the Iraqis are told we don't feel obliged to treat them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, if they read that we now find Geneva rules "obsolete" and "quaint," how do you think they'll be inclined to treat any U.S. soldiers they take captive?
My guess is that they'll ask, along with Shylock, "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Imagine televised images of our soldiers, naked and being forced to pretend to be having sex with each other. Or smeared with excrement. Or on all fours with dog collars around their necks on leashes held by their Iraqi captors.
"Wait a minute," I can hear some of you saying. "Everything we do to them is our revenge for what they did to us on 9/11 when they killed 3,000 Americans. They started it."
But those attacks were the work of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And we're taking our "revenge" on Iraq and Saddam. There's a big difference. Osama's a religious nut. Saddam's a secular nut. Osama's a Saudi. Saddam's an Iraqi. They can't stand each other.
But the neo-conservatives saw 9/11 as a pretext to go after Saddam for reasons that had almost nothing to do with 9/11. They wanted to finish what they felt we should have finished in the Gulf War by eliminating Saddam and getting at Iraqi oil.
It's like punishing the Cornhuskers because the Colorado Buffaloes used sex and booze to recruit players. That wouldn't be revenge; it would be a form of madness growing out of an inability to distinguish one team from another.
Hey, they're both Big 12 teams, aren't they? Hey, Osama and Saddam are both from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East, arenít they?
That's crazy thinking that leads to revenge which will lead to counter-revenge which will lead to counter-counter-revenge, ad infinitum, in ways even Shakespeare didnít imagine.
At least my sister and I finally grew up. I stopped calling her "goo-goo eyes," and she stopped throwing forks at me.
Are there any grownups left in Washington?
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: email@example.com.
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