“Do the right thing.” These were Secretary of State Colin Powell’s words of advice to the Wake Forest University class of 2004 in his May 17 commencement address. Then Powell issued an incontrovertible condemnation of the actions of U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners: “Our nation is now going through a period of deep disappointment, a period of deep pain over some of our soldiers not doing the right thing at a place called Abu Ghraib.... All Americans deplored what happened there.”
Well, perhaps not all Americans. There’s at least one American who has publicly praised, condoned, trivialized and joked about the abuse, torture, rape and possible murder of Iraqi prisoners. This American does not appear to be going through “a period of deep pain.” This American has instead called the abuse “a brilliant maneuver” and compared it to a college fraternity prank: “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation,” he said.
He excused the actions of our soldiers this way: “You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?”
Who is this American so unlike “all Americans,” as Powell described us? Rush Limbaugh, host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “The Rush Limbaugh Show.”
Limbaugh, of course, is entitled to express his views, however bizarre, ill considered and offensive. I would never dream of telling him what he should or shouldn’t say. But that doesn’t mean that radio stations have to pick him up. Just as he can speak his mind, they can choose to air his show or not.
That’s why I was stunned to learn that one full hour of “The Rush Limbaugh Show” is broadcast every weekday directly to our soldiers in Iraq and around the world -- to nearly 1 million U.S. troops in more than 175 countries and U.S. territories. Moreover, it is the only hourlong partisan political talk show broadcast daily to the troops.
Limbaugh’s show is broadcast by the Department of Defense’s American Forces Radio and Television Service, or AFRTS. According to its website, “The AFRTS mission is to communicate Department of Defense policies, priorities, programs, goals and initiatives. AFRTS provides stateside radio and television programming, ‘a touch of home’ to U.S. service men and women, DoD civilians and their families” outside the continental United States.
Why should American taxpayers pay for the broadcasting of such inexcusable views to U.S. troops? Why, at a combustible moment like this one, would we be funneling Limbaugh’s trivializations to our men and women at the front? Does Limbaugh’s pro-torture propaganda really qualify as “a touch of home”?
On CNN on June 2, Pentagon official Allison Barber defended the continued broadcasting of Limbaugh, saying broadcast decisions are “based on popularity here in the States.” But Barber also acknowledged that AFRTS based its programming decisions not only on ratings but on content too. Barber explained that AFRTS did not carry Howard Stern’s radio show -- which draws more than 8 million listeners a week, but which has also recently been the target of massive FCC fines for “indecency” -- because “his issue is one of content that is not appropriate.” AFRTS carries programming from National Public Radio, but only news and features. It does not carry any partisan political talk show other than Limbaugh’s.
By choosing the Limbaugh show over any other, even in the wake of Limbaugh’s recent remarks, the Pentagon and indeed Congress, which holds AFRTS’ purse strings, deems his content to be “appropriate.” I disagree, and along with 30,000 other Americans I signed a petition at the website mediamatters.org calling for Limbaugh’s removal from AFRTS.
In general, I believe all reasonable views should be aired. Quite aside from the Abu Ghraib controversy, I’d like to see AFRTS broadcast a fuller range of political views to our troops rather than giving Limbaugh a monopoly at the microphone -- and I applaud the Senate for approving an amendment to the defense authorization bill offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that calls on AFRTS to provide political balance in its news and public affairs programming. But in this case, nothing short of removing Limbaugh will suffice. The issue goes beyond ideological balance -- this is an issue of national security and national unity.
Limbaugh’s comments, and their tacit endorsement by the U.S. government, send a message to U.S. servicemen and servicewomen that torture is not a subject to be taken seriously and that these are actions that can be excused. Nothing could be more wrong than that.
Mike Farrell is an actor, human rights activist and former Marine.