Our Relative Goodness
by Allan Uthman
peered at me. "You're sure you don't want to say anything yet?
She'll be coming right back with the cigarettes, really."
I said, absentmindedly rubbing my wrist where the handcuffs were digging
into my skin. "I'm inclined to believe you, but I just want to
make sure, you know? I'm fiending pretty hard." I managed a weak
smile. "I'll tell you everything as soon as-"
opened, revealing a rather haggard female police officer nonchalantly
smacking a pack of rather expensive cigarettes against her palm. She
opened the pack and handed it to the detective, who lit one and handed
it to me. Eagerly I sucked on it, savoring the deliciously unadulterated
poison smoke. The door swung shut, muting the cacophonous din outside
the room, and shrouding us in relative silence. Now the detective
fixed his eyes on mine.
right then," he said, let's have it. What happened?"
on." I took another drag and pondered the question.
started during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the
prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. The Arab world (and the rest
of it) was up in arms about the depraved brutality displayed in the
now-famous pictures. But a lot of people on my TV, from pundits to
politicians, were making an important point: as badly as we may have
treated those people, it still wasn't close to the kind of messed-up
torture Saddam would have inflicted upon them. In fact, it wasn't
even really close. Saddam used acid, pulled out fingernails, all kinds
of sick crap. Our crap wasn't half as sick. Yep, as our leaders took
pains to make clear, we were definitely morally superior to Saddam
Hussein. And al Qaeda. Hitler, too.
James Inhofe of Oklahoma wasn't outraged at the pictures; he was "more
outraged at the outrage." He summed up his case succinctly: "I
would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah
that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons."
it from Connecticut's Republicrat Senator Joe Lieberman. "There's
not going to be any investigation by any Al Qaeda legislative body
of how that happened," Joe said about the decapitation of American
Nicholas Berg. Hey, yeah, that's right! Comparing our methods of killing
prisoners with that of the al Qaeda stand-ins in the Berg video, Lieberman
asserted, "We have the moral high ground."
call had been sounded, and the fair and balanced newsmen chimed in.
Rush, Hannity, Scarborough, et al were all on the same page-we had
nothing to be sorry for, as long as we equated the abused prisoners
with the people who brought us 9/11, and ourselves with the people
who used to do the torturing in the same prison. We may have been
brutal and uncivilized, but not as much so as Saddam.
my head was spinning, and I went to my local for a pick-me-up or three.
Alas, I should have known; there's no escaping the idiot box, and
the same damn news channel was on the tube at the bar. Every jerk
there was echoing the new mantra. "What, would they rather have
Saddam back in power?" said a paunchy, bearded drunk sitting
next to me.
back a shot and pulled on my beer. I knew I shouldn't engage the guy,
but I couldn't help myself. "But don't you think we should hold
ourselves to a higher standard than that?" I asked him.
no," he said. "Aren't you paying attention? He just said
that we can't hold high moral standards if we're going to whip these
guys' asses. They don't give a damn, right? I mean, do you think those
guys that cut that guy's head off feel bad?"
but remember after 9/11? We were all worried about 'letting the terrorists
win.' If we lived in fear, we were letting them win. If we reduced
ourselves to their savage level, we were letting them win. Hell, if
we missed "Friends" or bought a compact car we were letting
them win. Now we're shoving things up these guys' asses, making them
blow each other and urinating on them, and you're saying that's OK.
Isn't that letting the terrorists win?"
turned to face me,his dilated pupils fixing intently on my face. "Listen,
smart-ass," he said threateningly, "I'm telling you: if
we don't torture these guys, we're letting them win. I'm beginning
to wonder if maybe you wouldn't rather see Saddam in power again.
Where are you from anyway, man?"
side," I said, quickly pounding my beer. "Nice talking;
it was still daylight, and my senses reeled as the alcohol hit me-I'm
a lightweight, and I hadn't eaten yet. What's worse, I was out of
smokes. Heading to the nearest corner store, I wondered about what
the scary drunk had said. Was it true? Was there a new American standard
of criminal behavior? Had I myself been living by too stringent a
code of behavior? Think of it: a new age of personal freedom, where
we no longer needed to aspire to be as good as Jesus, or Martin Luther
King, or some other impossibly high standard, but could feel good
about ourselves as long as we weren't arranging helicopter crashes
to eliminate our annoying relatives or poisoning our enemies. Already
I could feel a new source of pride swelling within me. I was better
than the worst; much better, really. All in all, the feeling was very
bell chimed as I stumbled through the door at the store. A balding
man of indiscriminate middle eastern descent came out from the back
and stood behind the counter. "Hello," he said, smiling,
"help you?" Strange, foreign music filtered in from the
room he had just exited. An unfamiliar odor of incense lingered faintly.
yeah," I said, "box of Winston lights."
Eh?" said the man. It clearly wasn't a familiar brand to him.
Winston-over there," I pointed.
Here?" he said.
man," I said, growing impatient. "There-there to the left."
losing it. I kept pointing, and after an agonizing process of elimination
settled for Camels. Reaching into my pocket, I realized I'd left my
last ten on the bar. I had four singles left-close, but no cigarettes.
The shopkeeper looked at me expectantly. He looked like a terrorist,
I thought. Not like any individual one, but his features were generally
similar to the many grainy passport photos that John Ascroft and the
FBI had shown me over the last two or so years. I thought about Iraq,
about Abu Ghraib. Put a bag on this guy's head and strip him naked,
and he'd look just like any of those guys in that human pyramid.
else?" he said, competently pronouncing a phrase he was no doubt
about Saddam. What a jerk. It felt good to know that I really could
never be that bad. I thought about being broke. I didn't know how
long it would be before I got paid again, and I was hungry. It wasn't
fair-Saddam robbed his people blind, and lived high on the hog, while
a decent guy like me had to struggle for every scrap. But it was all
relative now. A little stealing wasn't so bad, was it?
it all fell into place. I felt something snap in my head, and I surrendered
to the moral ramifications of the Saddam Doctrine. I was an American,
and I needed to feel secure-financially secure.
um, do have any
ice?" I asked, knowing full well that he
"Ice, yes," he said, pointing toward a back corner.
you show me?"
at me quizzically. "Okay," he said and led me to the freezer.
He opened the door and I grabbed a bag. It was heavy and felt sharp
and cold in my hands.
you grab me two more, please?" I asked.
he said, dutifully picking up two bags, shutting the door and turning
around to walk back to the counter.
I said, as I slammed the bag down full force on his head. The bag
split open and ice cubes broke apart and spread willy-nilly across
the linoleum floor. The shopkeeper crumpled into a heap without a
sound, like a marionette with its strings cut. His scalp was bleeding
badly, but I kicked him a couple of times in the ribs to make sure
he was really out. "Still well above testing chemical weapons
on your own subjects," I thought. Already, I could see that the
new and seductive rationalization was helping me live my life to the
out the register, making sure to grab the big bills under the drawer.
I went for the Winstons, thought better of it, and grabbed a stack
of American Spirit blues. As I booked out the door, I could hear my
victim moaning softly. He wasn't dead--another score for American
* * *
"So, help us understand," said the detective, lighting another
one of my recently acquired slow-burning beauties. "What caused
you to do this? Why is everyone going nuts today?"
a long drag with my free hand, and reflected on my predicament. Just
like our heroes in Abu Ghraib, my misbehavior had been exposed by
the menace of modern video technology. Once again, our culture's obsession
with laws was giving the evildoers the advantage. Instead of sniffing
out sleeper cells, my city's law enforcement officials were wasting
my taxes by arresting and interrogating me--clearly a less dangerous
man than those who hate our freedom. I mean, the guy was fine, anyway,
or he would be.
it wasn't like I gave him an acid bath or anything," I said,
exhaling. "It's just not fair. How are we supposed to fight these
people if we're expected to obey laws?"
bumped against the door from the outside, momentarily startling the
cops. The police station was a madhouse, swamped with new arrivals
who had also taken the Saddam Doctrine to heart.
not that we don't agree with you, but we can't have people just running
mad in the streets," said the detective. "You understand
that, don't you?"
I understand," I said, "is that you guys are picking on
me, when there are people out there doing much worse things. It's
a clear double standard! I mean, would you prefer that Saddam was
returned to power?"
looked at each other. "he's right, you know," said one.
"His kids used to kidnap women and have their husbands killed.
We should let him go."
you can't really argue with that," said another.
put his hand to his forehead and sighed. "Okay, Mr. Uthman, we're
going to let you go, just as soon as this interrogation's over."
elated. "Wow, that's great, guys! Thanks!" What else can
I tell you?"
he said as he got up and locked the door, "we still need to know
what's causing this outbreak of violence, and we need to make sure
you're not holding out on us." The other officers were putting
on gloves and smiling evilly.
getting nervous. "Well, like I told you, I was acting alone.
I figure probably everyone else is just coming to the same conclusions
I did. Beyond that, I really can't tell you anything, I swear."
know, we know," said the detective, "and, to be honest,
I'm inclined to believe you. But we really need to be sure, you understand."
Now the other cops were pulling stuff out of a closet. Nightsticks,
chains--and a hood.
I said, horrified. "What the hell are those things for?"
worry," he said, "it'll be all right--it's not like we're
Saddam Hussein or anything."