Down the Sewer to Abu Ghraib

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Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation.

The horrific images of degrading acts by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison are, in a sense, nothing new. Millions of Americans feast on similar scenes every day.

The sickening photo of a female soldier blindly staring at the spectacle of her human prisoner, naked and leashed like a dog, is but the latest evidence of a culture gone stark raving mad.

For the last several decades, American culture has been rotting. While we’ve been busy fighting enemies around the world, we’ve discarded basic morality here at home. As a result, we’ve steadily weakened our stature in the world and placed ourselves in grave danger of falling from within.


The evidence pointing to cultural rot is indisputable: Americans spend $10 billion a year on pornography -- as much as we spend on sporting events. The average teenager views nearly 14,000 sexual references a year on television.

Power is equated with sex, and sex with power -- on television, in movies, magazines, billboards and music. At times, it appears as if Americans have had enough. Remember the outrage over Janet Jackson “flashing” at the Super Bowl? How about the disgust over the video of high school girls humiliating, urinating on and beating younger students in an “initiation” stunt? Now there’s Abu Ghraib. And we’re shocked ... again?

Some denounce the reprehensible behavior, point an accusing finger at the military and return to their family room easy chairs, where they sit transfixed by mindless programming while their kids retreat to their bedrooms and consume endless hours of sleaze on MTV.

We have been sliding down the slippery sewer of cultural immorality for so long that we don’t even realize that we’re covered with stinking sludge.

Amid the noble struggle to establish and maintain a nation of moral integrity, freedom and faith in God, our history has also included periods punctuated by acts of shame. The horrors of slavery come to mind. Yet, almost alone among nations throughout history, the United States has always managed to hold itself accountable for its ills, take corrective action and move to a higher level in our treatment of others.

Why? Because Americans once shared a collective understanding that ours is a society based on faith in God and his immutable laws of unconditional love, decency and the simple but powerful concept of treating others as we would be treated.


Our schools taught biblical principles. Our families gathered regularly in churches and synagogues. Prayer was a standard part of life -- both private and public. Americans were taught the Ten Commandments and the rich Judeo-Christian history of our country.

But that all changed in the 1960s, when there began a steady removal of God and his absolutes from the public square. As a nation we forgot, as President Lincoln said, “that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Schools were purged of prayer and biblical values, leaving a vacuum that was soon filled with the preaching of moral relativism, sexual anarchy and a trashing of U.S. history. Now, about 40 years later, there is no collective understanding of our Judeo-Christian history and the values that once permeated our halls of government, our schools and our lives.

Our nation once looked to the truth of the Proverbs: “To receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity; to give prudence to the naive, to the youth knowledge and discretion.” Today, we teach our children to rely on their own wisdom and judgment, formed by endless hours of sexualized programming, situational ethics and group thinking. And we’re surprised by the behavior of a few Americans at Abu Ghraib?

Our military is addressing the abuses that occurred in a prison far away and holding accountable those who are responsible -- but what are the rest of us doing to restore civility and decency here at home? In order to preserve a real future for our children and our nation, we must rediscover the timeless principles that helped us to become the world’s “last, best hope” -- and restore them to our daily lives.