Rush's words are torture, but not for the White House

By Mark Follman

Published May 7, 2004 9:02PM (EDT)

Though most people expressed unadulterated disgust when the Iraq torture story first broke, a few right-wingers began to equivocate in the last week. Some may be expressing their sincere personal beliefs, while others seem more determined to deflect some of the damage that the explosive scandal is currently visiting upon the Bush administration.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh remains in a category of his own. After making a series of outrageous comments on the issue earlier this week, he was at it again on Thursday, calling the abuses by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison "pretty thoughtful" and "a brilliant maneuver."

Maybe his ratings have dropped. Maybe he's back on the prescription pain killers. There's no reasonable explanation for his astonishing words:

"All right, so we're at war with these people. And they're in a prison where they're being softened up for interrogation. And we hear that the most humiliating thing you can do is make one Arab male disrobe in front of another. Sounds to me like it's pretty thoughtful. Sounds to me in the context of war this is pretty good intimidation -- and especially if you put a woman in front of them and then spread those pictures around the Arab world. And we're sitting here, 'Oh my God, they're gonna hate us! Oh no! What are they gonna think of us?' I think maybe the other perspective needs to be at least considered. Maybe they're gonna think we are serious. Maybe they're gonna think we mean it this time. Maybe they're gonna think we're not gonna kowtow to them. Maybe the people who ordered this are pretty smart. Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver."

Limbaugh also seems to think that there was appropriate restraint involved, anyway.

"Nobody got hurt. Nobody got physically injured. But boy there was a lot of humiliation of people who are trying to kill us -- in ways they hold dear. Sounds pretty effective to me if you look at us in the right context."

Apparently Limbaugh isn't aware of Sy Hersh's account in the New Yorker of photos from Abu Ghraib showing "the battered face of prisoner No. 153399, and the bloodied body of another prisoner, wrapped in cellophane and packed in ice" and "an empty room, splattered with blood." And clearly he hasn't taken the time to familiarize himself with the Army's harrowing Taguba report, which describes behavior by military police and interrogators that included "breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees, beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair, threatening male detainees with rape, sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to intimidate  and actually bite a detainee."

Today, as Media reports, White House chief spokesman Scott McClellan refused to repudiate Limbaugh's disturbing comments during a White House press conference -- even as President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other administration officials have apologized for the appalling acts of torture at Abu Ghraib, and even as administration officials reiterate the importance of condemning them unequivocally to the rest of the world.

"REPORTER: Scott, there's a segment of society that differs with the White House as it relates to these pictures and the investigation of the U.S. soldiers' conduct to include Rush Limbaugh who, Tuesday, agreed with the caller, equating the pictures to a college fraternity prank, and said the U.S. soldiers should not be punished because it was an emotional release as they were letting off steam. What's the White House say about that?

"McCLELLAN: April, I think the White House says what we said yesterday and what the President has said over the last few days.

"REPORTER: No, but Scott -- no, seriously. This man is a conservative --

"McCLELLAN: And I actually got asked a question earlier today about that matter.

"REPORTER: But none --

"McCLELLAN: And I addressed it then  The President's views have been very -- have been made very clear."

The administration may have good reason to stand by and let Limbaugh run his mouth: By measure of his sizable audience alone he's an influential conservative voice in America -- and he also has some close ties to the Bush White House. According to Media, in 1992 Limbaugh was an overnight guest in the White House of then-President George H.W. Bush. And on March 22 of this year, the White House tapped Limbaugh to help it run damage control during the political firestorm set off by Richard Clarke's book and damning testimony before the 9/11 commission on Bush's national security policy. In an unusual public-relations move, Vice President Dick Cheney went on Limbaugh's radio show as a guest where he sought to undercut the former counterterrorism director by calling him "out of the loop." Together with Limbaugh, the essential thrust was to mock Clarke, in hopes of discrediting him.

But Limbaugh's mocking the horrors perpetrated in Iraq is far worse. If the White House wants the world to believe President Bush's regrets about the torture scandal, and his pledge to get to the bottom of the abuses, the administration should be willing to denounce Limbaugh's offensive remarks. They directly contradict the White House message of responsibility and reconciliation put forth during the last 48 hours -- and to much of the world still reeling from the shocking images out of Abu Ghraib, they only make America look uglier.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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