There is something rather alarming about the way we are depicting Lynndie England, the female soldier whose tomboy grin, elfin haircut and thumbs-up gesture have become the icon of American shame in Iraq. She is the woman whose photographs - pointing to the exposed genitals of Iraqi prisoners or hauling a naked detainee on a leash like a dog - have flashed around the world.
Few could fail to be disgusted by the images. But having said that, the response to the behaviour of the 21-year-old American woman has been highly questionable. She has been described, variously, as a witch, a savage, a sick and twisted beast, a vile piece of scum, an all-American monster and the Rose West to the Fred of her boyfriend Charles Graner, the man named in a US Army internal report as one of the key perpetrators of the brutality against prisoners.
Her friends back home in West Virginia profess to be bemused by this demonisation of the "sweet girl" they knew. To them she was a churchgoing teenager who signed up as a reservist in the US Army to pay for a future college education and who cried for two hours when she learned her unit was being sent to Iraq. It is, of course, possible that they are just plain wrong. The friends and family of criminals often experience cognitive dissonance when they cannot reconcile what they hear in court with the person they thought they knew.
But there is another possibility. Let me sketch an alternative scenario. We know that Lynndie England was not a guard but a clerk whose job was to process new inmates at the jail. She had walked across the yard to the prison cell-block the night the photos were taken, as she had on numerous previous occasions throughout the hot Iraqi autumn, to see her boyfriend Graner as he worked the night shift.
Graner, we know, was an unpleasant character with a history of violence against his ex-wife. He was also previously a guard at a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania when it was rocked by an abuse scandal. Factor into that the two things Lynndie England's best friend back home has said about her. That she was "desperate to be popular". And that "she's always been obedient, that's why she's perfect for the military".
What then if the woman in the war's most infamous photographs is not a depraved sadist but rather an inadequate and insecure character desperate for peer approval? Had she stumbled into a situation in which Graner and his fellows were in the process of photographing their humiliated prisoners - and had she been told by her bullying boyfriend: "We're just taking photos, get in the picture, point to his private parts, take hold of this leash..." - she is the kind of weak-minded individual who would not have the inner resources to demur.
Of course I don't know that any of this is what happened. But, as an account, it is as consistent with the evidence available as are the suppositions of witchery, savagery and monstrous bestiality which other commentators have so casually flung around. (And it is a good deal more plausible than the bizarre excuse offered by a neo-con Republican the other day that she was motivated by feminist outrage at the way Iraqis treat their women.)
Why does this matter? Because we need always in situations of crisis to allow the possibility of alternative truths to cross our mind before we plump for the most sensationalist account. But also because, more gravely, it could throw an entirely different light on the evidence now piling up that there has been a systematic violation of human rights by coalition forces in Iraq.
The leaked Red Cross report into 14 prisons in central and southern Iraq, catalogues "serious violations of international humanitarian law" by coalition forces. Amnesty International has a spoken of a "pattern of torture" of Iraqi prisoners by coalition troops. An internal US Army report by Major General Antonio Taguba, details of which have been published in the New Yorker, refers to numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Ghraib prison - which go far beyond sexual humiliation and speak of the breaking of chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; and sodomising a detainee with a fluorescent light tube.
Most alarmingly, the 53-page report makes clear that the prison guard soldiers were acting on suggestions from army intelligence officers or CIA agents to "set physical and mental conditions for favourable interrogation of witnesses".
In the face of all this it seems increasingly implausible to speak, as President Bush has, of the "wrongdoing of a few". And if individuals like Lynndie England are weak rather than wicked that makes all this more rather than less serious. For we are looking at systematic patterns of mistreatment which speak of a policy which amounts to a war crime. In which case, scapegoating a handful of individuals, whether they be sadist or sad, is a diversion from the real problem.