The problem with the Fox thriller “24” is not that it justifies torture but that it fosters the illusion that the American government is good at it.The practices of Abu Ghraib suggest the opposite. The mystery of that shameful episode was not the cruelty of American troops assigned there. After the initial disbelief over the obscene snapshots, their smile-for-the-camera barbarity turned out to be another painful reminder that the banality of evil has no borders.
The real puzzle is why the administration, which argued that the war against terror required extreme interrogation techniques — the kind critics call torture — would then entrust such measures to untrained amateurs.
“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” a documentary by Rory Kennedy on HBO tonight, looks up and down the chain of command to examine how and why the abuse took place. It is not a new line of inquiry; a 2005 PBS “Frontline” documentary went over the same ground and also concluded that responsibility for the excesses trickled upward all the way to Washington.
But the raw material never ceases to shock. How is it that a government that took such bold steps to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions and update the rules of combat did not pay closer attention to how its policy changes were carried out on the ground? The Pentagon didn’t even manage to shield the worst excesses from public view.