May 19, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Un-American Activities? It’s Not the Passport That Molds the Character

The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, President Bush said, do not represent the America he knows.  Sen. Joe Lieberman called what took place there “un-American.”

They're right, of course. But there's something else that needs to be candidly acknowledged:  Americans are as likely as anyone else to do terrible things

Holding American citizenship provides no immunity against corruption, the temptation to delight in cruelty and the impulse to misuse power. Those who carry American passports are not necessarily better than people with other travel documents.

Yes, America is the land that gave the world Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Alva Edison, Jonas Salk, Martin Luther King and Bill Gates. But it's also the place that produced Mafia boss John Gotti, uni-bomber Ted Kaczinski and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

It's true that more refugees from tyranny have found freedom in American than anyplace else. More people have risen from poverty here than anywhere else. But it's also the case that, in America, Indians were massacred, blacks held in slavery and Japanese-Americans interned.

The most morally impressive individual I've ever met was Mother Teresa. She was born in Albania – not exactly a shining city on a hill.

Some of the most principled people I've ever known lived in the Soviet Union – where they suffered under a despotic regime that tried to crush them.

Similarly, there were Iraqis who displayed enormous courage despite Saddam's Hussein's oppression. Saddam executed them by the thousands. Millions fled into exile.

It's time we got beyond the idea that one's nationality or race or religion molds one for better or worse. That's not what we Americans should believe. It is, however, strikingly similar to what America's enemies have always believed.

The Communists were convinced that the working class was superior to the middle class – so they killed millions of the latter to empower the former.

The Nazis believed that the “Aryan race” was superior – so they slaughtered a third of the world's Jews, along with millions of Gypsies, Slavs and others “inferiors.”

In the Middle East, the Ba'athists – ardent students of Communism and Nazism — believe that Arabs are superior, and that Kurds, Jews and other minorities are not entitled to human or civil rights.

The Jihadis – against whom we are fighting a global war — not only believe that Muslims are superior – they literally believe they have a God-given right to kill any “infidels” unwilling to submit to them.

While Americans aren't superior to other nationalities, the United States is an exceptional nation. It boasts a system of constitutional government that is more than 200 years old – a system that's not perfect but that does guarantee freedom of speech and of the press, where the rule of law ensures that those responsible for the crimes that took place at Abu Ghraib can be exposed, investigated, prosecuted and punished.

That wasn't true in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It's not true in neighboring Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya or Egypt.

Many political systems – from communism to fascism to radical Islamism – aim to create a vision of paradise. They invariably fail, usually catastrophically.

But America's founders didn't design a political system to make bad people good or to build utopia.  They designed a system that takes human nature as they found it. What we are seeing now is how these institutions of American democracy work.

Last fall, under pressure from non-governmental organizations, the civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, asked the military to review conditions in Iraqi prisons. In January, a member of the Military Police Brigade told his superiors in Baghdad that guards were mistreating detainees in Abu Ghraib.

Within days a report was forwarded to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. A few days later, an investigation began. 

Even before the New Yorker magazine and CBS latched on to the story, a criminal investigation had resulted in charges against six soldiers – and that's just the beginning.

By contrast, North Korean newspaper columnists are not blasting the government for failing to make the railroads safe, despite the recent train explosion – possibly related to the manufacture of WMD's — that leveled a school. 

In Iran, radio talk show hosts are not in a rage over the oppression of religious minorities.

In the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority, there's no great public debate about whether murdering Israelis – for example, shooting a pregnant mother and her four daughters dead at point-blank range as recently happened in Gaza — might be something other than “resistance to occupation” (as some Palestinian spokesmen called it) or “heroic martyrdom” (as other Palestinian officials called it).

Like most Americans, I'm ashamed that Americans took sadistic pleasure in humiliating and abusing prisoners.

This wasn't genocide or a massacre.  It wasn't like Saddam feeding dissidents into an industrial shredder. It wasn't like the ritual slaughter of Nick Berg, an American who went to Iraq to help in the reconstruction effort. But it was cruel and – let's hope – unusual punishment. And it was weirdly decadent.

We have the freedom to say that, and to demand that all those who participated, encouraged or even turned a blind eye to these abuses get the book thrown at them.

If Americans and Iraqis can partner to establish freedom and the rule of law in Iraq, that will be an historic achievement — not because freedom and democracy are a cure for the failings of human nature, but because they the best means yet devised to cope with those failings.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.