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By now, we’ve all seen the photos. The world has seen them.

Naked Iraqi prisoners, cruelly dragged along the ground by a dog leash or forced into degrading positions simulating sex acts — all for the sport and amusement of a handful of depraved men and women who wear the uniform of the U.S. military.

Beyond seeing, we’ve all felt the burning shame and anger these photographs elicit. And we should. We are Americans. We’re better than this.

I have the deepest respect for those who serve in the armed forces. They are disciplined, well-trained, freedom-loving, and — far more often than not — honorable. Their willful service and sacrifice are the guarantors of the rights and privileges we all enjoy as U.S. citizens. For that, they have my sincere gratitude, heartfelt appreciation, and steadfast support.

But recent events have brought another facet of the military’s importance to light. The goulish images emanating from the Abu Ghraib prison demonstrate that the men and women of our military are far more than our protectors. They are also representatives and ambassadors of American civilization. Perhaps more than any other societal indicator, our conduct in war speaks volumes about the quality of our culture. In a speech given a few years ago by Alan Keyes, he observed how remarkable it is that we only used the atom bomb twice in World War II. Some decry the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as consummate expressions of American barbarism. Consider, however, that we were the first to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. No other nation possessed such powerful technology. Had chosen to do so, we could have held the world hostage: Either join the new global American empire or face annihilation.

But we didn’t, because we’re better than that. It was enough for us to procure Japan’s unconditional surrender and put an end to the most destructive conflict the world has ever known.

The projection of American force must always be tempered by the exercise of American restraint; the locus of such restraint resides in the underlying Judeo-Christian values that are so foundational to the success and greatness of our nation. An extreme minority of American men and women chose to depart from those values in a crucial time and region where the cynical, scrutinizing eyes of the entire world are focused. Unfortunately, it takes only a little foolishness to undo much wisdom (see Ecclesiastes 10:1). This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole scandal. The liberation of an oppressed people, the honorable conduct of the majority our armed forces, and the good and upright values the American public holds are all overshadowed in the court of public opinion by the wicked deeds of a select few.

Imagine, therefore, my personal consternation when the world learned that some of the soldiers who perpetrated the abuse at Abu Ghraib came from a batallion of reservists stationed in a suburb of my home town, Cumberland, MD.

In response to this news, a huge cadre of reporters from all over the planet descended upon sleepy little Cumberland (see photo at right), interviewing local yokels to get reaction to the news coming out of Abu Ghraib — and to find out what it is about Cumberland that would produce the military “monsters” everybody now loves to hate. Many of the reporters apparently proceeded from an assumption of guilt by association; if soldiers from Cumberland behaved so despicably, then Cumberland and its citizens must be despicable as well.

Given the axiom from Ecclesiastes I cited above, I can understand that kind of reaction. Even so, is it really all that difficult to realize that every group of people — whether a community, a nation, or a military — is going to have a few bad eggs in it? (HINT: The preceding sentence is a rhetorical question that expects a negative answer.)

When I was a senior at Allegany High School in Cumberland, I took a guitar class. It was one of those blow-off classes we’ve all had on occasion — half the time the teacher left us to our own devices. One of the members of the guitar class was a Japanese exchange student. She was almost universally well-liked. Her petite frame, kind face, and polite meekness were endearing. She was also a very good pianist, and on those days when our guitar class ended up being a study hall, she could usually be found banging away at an upright piano that sat at the front of the room. Eventually, the tasteful stream of Bach inventions and Clementi sonatas just got to be too much for some of the yahoos in our class. To my horror, one of them taped a profanity-laden sign to the piano while the exchange student was performing. This quiet, kindhearted girl was a guest in our school, our community, and our country. I felt that all of us were duty-bound to put our best foot forward — both for her benefit and our own. So, before she had a chance to see the boorish epithets on the sign, I ripped it off the piano and threw it in the trash. Then I asked her as gently as I knew how to take a rest from tickling the ivories. I’ll never forget the look she gave me; it was as if I had kicked a puppy. I can’t imagine her reaction if she had actually seen the sign.

Believe it or not, there is a point to this story that relates to the Abu Ghraib scandal. It would be positively absurd to assert that my entire high school was racist or anti-Japanese because a few students in my guitar class mistreated a Japanese exchange student. In the same way, the mistreatment of some Iraqi prisoners at the hands of Cumberland natives doesn’t make Cumberland (or America) a wholesale incubator for barbarians.

Observers of the Abu Ghraib scandal ought to be able to make a distinction between the errant actions of a few and the values and policies of an entire people. It’s a very simple distinction to make, as my guitar class story illustrates. When members of the press, leaders of nations, and terrorists alike fail to make this distinction, I can only conclude that they have chosen not to do so out of political or ideological expedience — a fact which highlights their own willful ignorance and prejudice vis-a-vis the U.S., not to mention their hypocrisy.

Go ahead. Hold us to standards you are unwilling to live by yourselves. We’re used to it. We’re Americans.