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VOLUME 3, ISSUE 320 | May 13 – 19, 2004

LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Rumsfeld Must Go: Homophobia at the Heart of the Matter

Howard Dean was widely scorned by political pundits last December when he said that the United States was no safer even after Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi leader, had been captured.

It is now indisputably clear that this nation is worse off in our global effort to combat terrorism, due to the war policy in Iraq prosecuted by Pres. George W. Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

Any remaining doubt on that question was surely removed by the shocking video images, circulating widely on the Internet Tuesday and Wednesday, of militants beheading Nicholas Berg, a 26-year-old native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, in Iraq.

The slaying of Berg was a somber coda to two weeks of increasingly revolting revelations—in both testimony and, especially, photographs—of human rights abuses carried out by U.S. military personnel overseeing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

Coming shortly after the one year anniversary of the war, and at the end of the bloodiest month for American service members, the revelations about Abu Ghraib were for many Americans—and surely most of the rest of the world—the last straw for the Bush/Rumsfeld policy. During the past year, most of the other major arguments that the administration made for going to war—that Saddam Hussein had dangerous weapons of mass destruction, that our victory would come easy and our exit early, that the preponderance of Iraqis would greet American soldiers as liberators, and that our “mission” was “accomplished”—had withered away. The final justification was that Hussein was a brutal dictator who maintained prisons for torture and rape—a claim that surely was true—and that the world was better off without him.

Then the images from Abu Ghraib, a prison at the center of Hussein’s brutal regime, undercut the moral imperative that the United States presumed to chart the course for freedom in Iraq. One does not have to cede any ground to the barbarity that resulted in Berg’s brutal murder to recognize that this latest atrocity, aimed at the United States, came in direct response to revelations of American abuses and is being justified in the Islamic world as such. Even Karl Rove, the combative and stridently conservative political guru who orchestrates spin control at the White House, has conceded that the reports coming out of Abu Ghraib have set back by a generation American efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslim people.

The looks on the faces of senators coming out of Wednesday’s confidential viewing of additional photos out of the prison suggested that the decline in American prestige around the world is only going to get worse in the near term.

Someone must take responsibility for this failure and that person is Donald Rumsfeld, who has overseen a disastrous policy of misleading the American people, covering up what he has known and what he has not known about the war, failing to impose good orderly direction on the Pentagon, and finally neglecting to come forward—even to the president he claims to revere—with the truth about the abuses under his watch. As a man who claims a high measure of patriotism, he owes it to his country to resign immediately. If he fails to take that route, the president should overcome his fear of looking weak in making a tough decision and fire Rumsfeld. If both of those options are non-starters, as is likely, the Congress should act swiftly to impeach the secretary of defense and remove him from office.

That step, at a minimum, is required to restore our nation’s honor and to begin the hard road back from the precipice in Iraq.

On the front page of this newspaper, we assert that the military’s culture of homophobia lies at the heart of the current scandal. That is not to suggest that other factors—including racism and misogyny—are not also at play in creating the environment that made Abu Ghraib possible.

At the same time, as pictures such as the image presented on page one and an investigative report completed in March by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba make unmistakably clear, military personnel used same-gender sexual harassment, including anti-gay slurs, forced masturbation, and the threat and reality of rape, as critical aspects of their abuse. Taguba’s report and a just-released yearlong investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross assert that such abuse was carried out in a climate defined by military intelligence’s effort to “soften up” the Iraqi detainees.

Significantly, the most serious abuse occurred during the period when the hunts for Hussein and for his two sons, Uday and Qusay, were most intense.

The homophobic humiliation of Iraqi detainees is not merely a curious and grotesque footnote to the Abu Ghraib scandal—it is a defining element. Whatever the specific chain of events that led to theses instances of abuse, and there were likely different proximate causes in each instance, such abuse is not possible unless the perpetrator is able psychologically to view his or her victim as less than human. Homophobia—along with the misogyny that led to the abuse of women witnessed in photographs seen by senators Wednesday and the racism that has allowed many to dismiss Iraqis as “towel heads”—is a critical component in the ideological underpinnings of such dehumanization.

Unfortunately, homophobia has a long history in the military and it will take courageous and assertive leadership to root it out. Donald Rumsfeld is but the latest in a long string of national leaders who have failed to provide that leadership.

It could be argued that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which requires gay men and lesbians to hide the truth about their lives and makes it harder for those harassed to complain for fear of implicitly “telling,” leads to the sort of depravity witnessed at Abu Ghraib. The sad truth, however, is that homophobia is more deeply rooted in the military, and in some aspects of our culture as a whole, than a 11-year-old policy, even if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell exacerbates the situation dramatically.

The events surrounding the 1999 murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell, a 21-year-old soldier murdered in a vicious anti-gay assault at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, vividly illustrate the hurdle we must overcome in the military. Though Winchell’s two killers were punished, nobody else at Fort Campbell faced any disciplinary action for the homophobic climate on the base that kept the murdered man fearful of reporting his abuse and was amply documented by testimony from some of Winchell’s supervisors in an official investigation. In a “60 Minutes” report later in 1999, a former Fort Campbell soldier said that just weeks after Winchell’s murder, sergeants there again began using a rhyme, “Faggot, faggot, down the street, shoot him, till he retreats,” when drilling the troops.

That is homophobia—quite nearly official, institutional homophobia—just as is the recent assault on the dignity of gay men and lesbians underlying Bush’s effort to enshrine our second class citizenship in the Constitution. Homophobia needs to be named if it is going to be addressed.

Clearly extraordinary commitment is needed from our nation’s leaders, including those at the Pentagon, not merely to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell but also to cure the military of the homophobia that is a cancer on it. Exceptional leadership is also needed to lead us out of the morass in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld is not the man for either job.

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