Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Chairman, Committee on International Policy
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
May 14, 2004
The horrifying images from Iraq are overwhelming. The disgusting pictures of the cruelty of some U.S. soldiers are surpassed by the grotesque beheading of Nicholas Berg and the abhorrent claim that his murder will redeem the dignity of the Iraqi prisoners.
The abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners have brought shame upon our nation, are an affront to our most basic ideals, and will undermine legitimate efforts to confront the very real threats faced by our nation and the world.
As our nation expresses its revulsion at the crimes committed in its name and undertakes the essential task of determining the nature, extent and responsibility for the abuses, it is worth reflecting on two related moral risks that could arise in responding to the horrors of September 11th and the difficulties in Iraq.
The first risk arises from the fact that the uniquely catastrophic evil done to us on September 11th -- and the continuing evils exemplified by the grotesque beheading of Nicholas Berg can feed a sense of exceptionalism. We can lose sight of the hard truth that the twin feelings of victimization and moral superiority do not free us from the moral obligation to uphold the basic rights even of our worst enemies who, themselves, show contempt for such rights.
The second risk is a natural outgrowth of the first. The gravity of the threats we face tempts us to tolerate an ends-justify-the-means morality. The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in stopping terrorism can lead to a minimalist morality that accepts a permissive interpretation of international law, the inevitability of mounting civilian casualties in Iraq, and the realism of an over-reliance on military responses to the problem of global terrorism.
The moral challenge at this moment is to address the horrendous cases of abuse in a way that proves to the world - and, most importantly, to ourselves -- that our nation has not succumbed to these risks. The universal condemnation of what has taken place at Abu Ghraib is a hopeful sign that, despite the unspeakable evils done to us and the terrible threats we face, our nation is committed to acting in full accord with fundamental moral norms and Americas cherished ideals of liberty and justice for all. In doing so, we will uphold international law, strengthen the moral fiber of our nation, and best honor the memory of the victims of September 11th and the soldiers and civilians who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.