I got into a heated debate with a teenager the other night. (Is there any other kind when dealing with a 16-year old?)

This kid has grown up in a good home. His parents are well-educated and loving. So I was taken aback when he made a comment that sounded racist. He denied it.

"I'm not racist, but on the whole, I don't like Muslims," he said.

Now, I'll admit, I don't know many Muslims. To be honest, I'm not sure I know any. Rural Oregon isn't exactly a model for diverse cultures. But as far as I know I've got nothing against Muslims.

However, this kid isn't from Oregon. He lives near a military base in West Georgia. He's grown up around all sorts of people from all sorts of cultures.

I asked him why he didn't like Muslims, on the whole that is. He told me a story about working at some carnival last summer, and how the Muslims kept trying to sneak on the rides, using the same tickets, over and over. Whereas, other people only used their tickets once, because, well, you know, Americans, as a whole, are an honest bunch of folks.

"Muslims can't be trusted. They are all liars," the kid said. "We ought to keep them out of our country."

I asked this kid why he thought it was OK to lump all Muslims into a group just because of one incident he'd experienced.

He couldn't come up with an articulate answer.

I've been rendered speechless myself after viewing the appalling pictures that a handful of American soldiers took while sexually abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Saddam's Abu Ghraib dungeon.

The repulsive photos anger me. Reportedly taken as trophy tokens, the pictures reveal gleeful American soldiers, male and female, jeering at debased Iraqi POWs.

I have walked through the Hanoi Hilton, the prison where our American servicemen were held during the Vietnam War. Sen. John McCain was one of those POWs. I don't know all the nightmares that McCain and others like him lived through, but I have a hard time imagining anything more sickening than what's taken place at Abu Ghraib.

It seems absolutely insane to me that American soldiers who are willing to lay down their lives in order to free a nation of wounded people from a tyrannical regime, would gloat over binding naked men together.

I'm so mad at those American soldiers, I'd like to string them up and hang them all out to dry, on a very hot day. But, then, that's part of the problem isn't it? Lumping people together as a whole.

As these photographs make their way around the globe, that's exactly what's happening to Americans. People from nations worldwide are using this incident to declare that they don't really like us, as a whole, that is. Especially not American soldiers, because it appears, as a whole, our military are capable of unspeakable evils. The same sort of abuses that earned Saddam his infamous reputation as an "evildoer."

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq, also is worried about the impact.

"If we can't hold ourselves up as an example of how to treat people with dignity and respect, we can't ask that other nations do that to our soldiers," Kimmitt said.

Kimmitt repeatedly stressed that the torture were the actions of only a handful of American soldiers and not at all reflective of the military, as a whole.

"By God, it doesn't reflect my Army," Kimmitt said.

Maybe not. But the retaliatory beheading of Nicholas Berg by a handful of Muslim extremists is all the proof we need the Army's abuses at Abu are fueling the flames of hatred against all Americans.

"We'll end up getting paid back 100 or 1,000 times over," warned former Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan.

And you know what they say, payback is hell on everyone.

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Karen Spears Zacharias is a freelance writer who lives in Hermiston. She can be reached at www.heromama.org or by phone at 379-8572.

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