World Cops don’t need no stinkin’ rules

In the TV show’s final scene, we’re feeling tense. Our hero ends up face to face with the Bad Guy. The two are alone on a dark deserted waterfront. The Bad Guy takes aim and fires his gun. Phew, it’s empty. The Good Guy closes in, grabs the evil-doer and shoves a weapon in the Bad Guy’s face.

“Shoot him,” my kid advises.

“Nah, can’t shoot him,” I explain. “He’s unarmed. He’s going to have to arrest …”

Before I can finish, bang. Bad Guy dead. My daughter’s instincts were on target. In 15 years of ingesting U.S. media, she’s learned it’s OK to break rules, to assassinate unarmed opponents—in this fictional case, a European terrorist—if you are on the side of truth, justice and the American whatever.

But, you say, it’s just a TV show. It’s just a Tom Clancy novel or a movie or a video game.

Yet in that endless art-life imitation cycle, the message leaks over into our news and presidential press conferences. To elevate vigilantism over diplomacy is essential to our national dialogue. That’s how we rationalize breaking with world leaders and taking matters into our own hands in the War on Terror. Because we are such a loving, caring, moral nation, God wants us to police the globe. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men and women to fret endlessly over the shape of the ice rink on the Mapes lot.

Since we are the Good Guys, it’s OK to invade (no, liberate!) Iraq—a country that posed no real threat to us and had no proven links to the terrorist groups responsible for the acts of Sept. 11, 2001. No matter that weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq; we were doing good things for a nation in despair. We captured Saddam the Despot, the oppressor of free speech and free thought, the torturing tyrant. We rebuilt roads and schools.

What? Those Iraqi newspapers we shut down? Let’s not talk about that.

What about freedom at home? Let’s not talk about the 15-year-old art student in Prosser, Wash., interrogated in April by U.S. Secret Service agents for his dastardly anti-war sketches.

We are the Defenders of Democracy. We don’t have to observe such rules as the Geneva Convention, which dictates the standards of “civilized” military behavior. Perhaps that’s the justification U.S. soldiers used to excuse the torture of Iraqi detainees at a prison near Baghdad last year, in the months before Christmas. Brutal acts, as reported on 60 Minutes II and in The New Yorker, included burning detainees’ skin with phosphoric acid from light bulbs, sodomizing detainees with said light bulbs, beating detainees with various objects and subjecting the prisoners to an array of sexually degrading acts.

Photos on The New Yorker Web site,, show American soldiers posing near nude Iraqis who are being forced into humiliating positions. One photo shows a hooded man perched precariously on a box, arms extended, with wires attached to limbs and genitals. The caption says the prisoner was told he’d be electrocuted if he fell off the box.

Sources interviewed for these stories worry that the six soldiers facing prosecution for the acts might have been acting on orders directly or tacitly approved by military higher-ups.

I’d like to believe we’re the Good Guys, that the war’s cost in American lives has resulted in some good. I wish I could.

In another New Yorker story, reporter Dan Baum visits with U.S. soldiers who were wounded in Iraq. One amputee said: “If we hadn’t gone to war, eventually we’d see chemical arms and those kind of munitions on our streets.”

Baum writes that, as the other soldiers nodded in agreement, the amputee continued, "You know, we kind of have to think that." He gestured at his missing arm. "Otherwise, this is in vain."