How outraged should an outraged American be?

This became a question last week thanks to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. When he took the microphone at the hearings on Abu Ghraib prison, he did not begin with a question for the military man seated at the table — which is what he was there to do.

Instead, like too many senators — Democrat and Republican — he began with a speech.

And in his speech, he said he was “more outraged by the outrage” than by the treatment depicted in photographs from Abu Ghraib.

These were the photographs, in case you’ve been out of the country for a while, that showed naked Iraqi detainees bound or gagged, stacked like flapjacks, bagged over the head or leashed like pets, while our soldiers posed and smiled as if taking snapshots with Mickey Mouse.

This was the treatment, according to the military, that saw detainees forced into sexual acts or attacked by dogs. Inhofe suggested these people had it coming, saying if the prisoners were in that area, “they’re murderers, they’re terrorists . . .”

Later, in a final “outraged” point, he said: “I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders . . . looking for human rights violations.”

Because, as we all know, if there’s one thing you hate about war, it’s all those do-gooders.

The values of Americans

Now, I guess I’m a little confused. I thought we, as Americans, were proud to be do-gooders. I thought we took pride in not sinking to the level of the people who hate us. I thought we felt good about offering an example to the world of how a civilized country can and should look.

I thought the greatest part of this nation was its willingness to cast an eye upon itself, to examine its leaders, its behavior, and see whether we were living up to our high standards or if we could do better.

I thought we took pride in never adopting the dogma of “our leaders are always right” or “our soldiers are always right” or “our politicians are always right.” I thought that was exactly the kind of lockstep fascism we deplored in places like, well, Iraq.

And I thought, above all, that we so loved life and basic human rights — the kind written in our Constitution — that we were always outraged when we saw them abused.

No matter who did the abusing.

Stereotyping the Arab world

Inhofe’s statements confused many people. For one thing, his insistence that the detainees are all “murderers and terrorists.” How would he know that? Nobody else seemed to. Abu Ghraib was clearly a ball of confusion, few people knew what anyone was or wasn’t doing, and between 70 and 90 percent of the people brought there were reportedly innocent of anything. Two of the alleged men in those awful photographs were actually interviewed by U.S. newspapers. They’d been released. If they were murderers or terrorists, why were they let go?

But Inhofe can say those things, because it reflects a convenient lumping together of almost anything Arab into the big funnel of Sept. 11. It’s getting to the point where if they look like Arabs, they must know something.

I don’t know if anyone bound, gagged or naked in those photos had anything remotely to do with the terrorism of Sept. 11. But I do know those photos will inspire some angry Muslims to sign up for more.

So I don’t get it when Inhofe is “outraged by the outrage.” Americans can be outraged by bad conduct without hating the military. They can be outraged by Abu Ghraib without joining the enemy. They can be outraged by one act and still be outraged by another, such as the beheading of Nicholas Berg. Outrage is not mutually exclusive.

Quite the contrary. It is our anger at cruelty that defines us — as a caring, human people. Maybe politicians like Inhofe should stop making speeches when they’re supposed to be asking questions. Personally, I don’t worry when the country is outraged over bad behavior.

I worry when it isn’t.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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