I’ve been hard on the media in this blog for what I’ve considered its partisan over-coverage of the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. I didn’t approve of what went on there–because, although I don’t believe in coddling prisoners, I do believe in treating them with whatever standards of decency are concordant with maintaining a secure facility. American soldiers, living under a system that strives to set a model of human freedom and dignity, should never stoop to the level of the military of other nations where mistreatment of prisoners is routine.

Nonetheless, I got tired of all the press harping on what struck me as relatively minor (if definitely punishable) infringements: men being forced to wear women’s underwear or parade around naked in front of female U.S. soldiers. Give me a break, I thought. Where was the media indignation over Nicholas Berg’s beheading? Or over the actual torture–the electrodes, the flesh-shredding, the rapes, the hanging from meathooks–that was routine for years under Saddam Hussein? My contempt was compounded when the Boston Globe ran fake abuse photos lifted from porn videos, and then just barely apoogized.

But the latest revelations from Abu Ghraib–the statements by 13 prisoners to military investigators that the Washington Post has gotten hold of–go way beyond the frat-house initiation level of what was previously revealed (the Drudge Report has all the links, including this one with photos). Here’s what the Post reports:

“Previously secret sworn statements by detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq describe in raw detail abuse that goes well beyond what has been made public, adding allegations of prisoners being ridden like animals, sexually fondled by female soldiers and forced to retrieve their food from toilets.

“The fresh allegations of prison abuse are contained in statements taken from 13 detainees shortly after a soldier reported the incidents to military investigators in mid-January. The detainees said they were savagely beaten and repeatedly humiliated sexually by American soldiers working on the night shift at Tier 1A in Abu Ghraib during the holy month of Ramadan, according to copies of the statements obtained by The Washington Post.

“The statements provide the most detailed picture yet of what took place on the cellblock. Some of the detainees described being abused as punishment or discipline after they were caught fighting or with a prohibited item. Some said they were pressed to denounce Islam or were force-fed pork and liquor. Many provided graphic details of how they were sexually humiliated and assaulted, threatened with rape, and forced to masturbate in front of female soldiers.”

There’s lots more. Along with photographs.

Here’s the most disturbing paragraph of all:
“While military investigators interviewed the detainees separately, many of them recalled the same event or pattern of events and procedures in Tier 1A — a block reserved for prisoners who were thought to possess intelligence that could help thwart the insurgency in Iraq, find Saddam Hussein or locate weapons of mass destruction. Military intelligence officers took over the cellblock last October and were using MPs to help ‘set the conditions’ for interrogations, according to an investigative report complied by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. Several MPs have since said in statements and through their attorneys that they were roughing up detainees at the direction of U.S. military intelligence officers.”

This is disgusting. It’s pointless. And it’s just plain wrong. I wouldn’t even believe it–I’d figure the prisoners were telling whoppers for the benefit of the press–were it not for the fact that the statements seem to corroborate each other and were collected, not by sympathetic reporters but by the U.S. military itself.

Just for starters–is this the way we would want our own soldiers to be treated if they fell prisoner to an enemy? Abu Ghraib looks like a reverse image of the Hanoi Hotel, where U.S. soldiers were mistreated in ghastly ways for years in order to “set the conditions” for their cooperation with the North Vietnamese.

Second, we’re Americans, and we don’t do that kind of thing. In particular, we’re a country that respects everyone’s religious freedom and everyone’s religion. Civil libertarians here in the States justly raise a hue and cry when American inmates–convicted felons–are denied access to Christian services. You don’t force-feed liquor to an American Seventh Day Adventist in jail, and you don’t force-feed it to a Muslim, either.

And third, whose bonehead idea was it that “roughing up” people can make them talk? And I’m someone who believes that torture–inflicting pain in the course of an interrogation–actually works. The ancient Romans routinely used torture as part of their criminal investigation system, and by God, they usually got the information they were looking for. So did the Nazi Gestapo and just about any other barbaric regime you can think of. Put someone on a rack or start ripping his flesh from him inch by inch, and unless he’s a hero, he’ll tell you everything he knows. But merely “roughing up” people to soften them up? C’mon. You gotta use the thumbscrews. And just as I believe that torturing prisoners should be off-limits in a civilized society, so I believe that making them masturbate and eat out of toilets should be off-limits as well.

The good thing is that the matter of  Tier 1A is under full U.S. investigation, and the court-martials have begun. We’re cleaning our own house. That’s more than you can say for Saddam.