“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” That’s what Oscar Wilde famously said about the lugubriously sentimental passing of the child-heroine of Charles Dickens’s “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

And that’s how I feel–wanting to laugh–when I read the hand-wringing in the liberal press over the U.S. mistreatment of Iraqui detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Not that I approve of the mistreatment itself, which was disgraceful. We Americans must hold ourselves to high and humane standards of treating those who fall into our power in accord with their dignity as human beings–and those who violate those standards must be suitably punished. Fortunately, it seems that the violators are a minority of unseasoned and immature military personnel who don’t reflect the attitudes and behavior of the vast majority of American men and women in service.

But I can’t help grinning at the yelps of outrage from our liberal opinion-molders–the very same people who had nothing whatever to say about the genuinely ghastly physical tortures that Saddam Hussein inflicted on thousands of Iraqis over the years. At Abu Ghraib, by contrast, there are no allegations of physical torture. The pain was strictly psychological: having to strip naked, simulate sexual acts, wear hoods, and get hooked up to electrical wires that led to–nowhere. Oh, and chicks were on the torture teams, which to misogynist Muslim fanatics is a Very Bad Thing. But in all the photos I’ve seen, not a single pyramided body looks bloody, pained, or starved.

Frankly, it all sounded only slightly worse than the inititiation ceremony my classmates and I had to endure when we tried to join a secret club at my snooty all-girls’ high school. We had to don gunnysack robes, walk barefoot through mud and over rocks, get pelted with garbage, have honey smeared on our hair, kneel abjectly to our captors–and then, after all that, I didn’t even make the cut to get into the damned club!

All of this is a bit different, don’t you think, from having electric shocks fed to your genitals and then being fed yourself into a plastic-shredding machine? That’s the sort of thing that Saddam did for years, and over which we have yet to hear scarcely a word of protest from our oh-so-sensitive liberal press. The worst exemplar of the latter was Philip Kennicott yesterday in the Washington Post. Kennicott is supposed to be a music critic, but the Post afforded him front-page space in its “Style” section for an essay which disguised itself as reporting but which was actually unadulterated handwringing opinion. Kennicott, naturally, blames all America–and also America’s decision to invade Iraq in the first place–for the outrages. We Americans are just plain bad people:

“[T]hese photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals (though the scandal widens, as scandals almost inevitably do, and the military’s own internal report calls the abuse ‘systemic’). But armies are made of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals. Great national crimes begin with the acts of misguided individuals; and no matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done. We live in a democracy. Every errant smart bomb, every dead civilian, every sodomized prisoner, is ours.”

Then Kennicott launches into full hyperbole, somehow analogizing the mistreatment of the prisoners to every bad thing that white males have ever done:

“These photos show us what we may become, as occupation continues, anger and resentment grows and costs spiral. There’s nothing surprising in this. These pictures are pictures of colonial behavior, the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished. They are unexceptional. In different forms, they could be pictures of the Dutch brutalizing the Indonesians; the French brutalizing the Algerians; the Belgians brutalizing the people of the Congo.

“Look at these images closely and you realize that they can’t just be the random accidents of war, or the strange, inexplicable perversity of a few bad seeds. First of all, they exist. Soldiers who allow themselves to be photographed humiliating prisoners clearly don’t believe this behavior is unpalatable. Second, the soldiers didn’t just reach into a grab bag of things they thought would humiliate young Iraqi men. They chose sexual humiliation, which may recall to outsiders the rape scandal at the Air Force Academy, Tailhook and past killings of gay sailors and soldiers.

“Is it an accident that these images feel so very much like the kind of home made porn that is traded every day on the Internet?”

I especially like the stuff about colonialism. If only we were making an American colony out of Iraq–instead of being so eager to get the hell out that we turned Fallujah over briefly to a Baathist. The stuff about pornography and sexual humiliation is also rich. When American social conservatives complained about Janet Jackson’s bared breast at the Super Bowl, Kennicott’s kind ridiculed them as a bunch of puritans. But naked Iraqi Muslim men–we can’t offend their sensibilities.

And I love this sentence in Kennicott’s essay, cited as an example of how low we have fallen in world opinion.

“‘US military power will be seen for what it is, a behemoth with the response speed of a muscle-bound ox and the limited understanding of a mouse,’ said Saudi Arabia’s English language Arab News.”

The Arab News? Forgive me, please, for chuckling a la Oscar Wilde.