As the photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners suffering mistreatment at the hands of U.S. soldiers make their way around the world, people are asking how such a thing could have happened.
The criticism is harsh. Even countries which have themselves been targeted for shortcomings in human rights are wagging a finger.
China, for instance, has called the abuse "astonishing," with foreign affairs spokesman Liu Jianchao saying the actions violate international conventions.
Beijing today also announced a campaign to purge its own prison systems of officials who torture and maltreat prisoners.
Long-term U.S. allies have also used strong language. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso denounced the abuses at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison as "vile, degrading, repugnant, and revolting."
Durrao Barroso pointed out the basic contradiction, when he said: "You cannot, in the name of the struggle against terrorism and for the sake of freedom, contravene the very values and principles on which that struggle is based."
But the harshest resentment can be seen in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where the photographs have raised a firestorm of criticism and anti-American invective.
Apologetic appearances by U.S. President George W. Bush on two Arabic-language TV stations last week have done little to quell the mounting anger over the prison scandal.
That anger took a sinister turn yesterday, when a video posted on an Islamic militant website appeared to show a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda beheading an American civilian in Iraq in revenge for the treatment of Iraqi detainees.
Many Muslims have condemned the act as un-Islamic. But some, like Jabar Khan, a shopkeeper in Kabul, say the murder is justified: "This beheading is a good act because the Iraqis have been oppressed and whoever is oppressed should defend themselves. As a Muslim, I support this act."
Jonathan Stevenson, a senior diplomatic analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the scandal adds an element of "hypocrisy" to the whole controversial question of the war in Iraq.
"The prisoner abuse is certainly perceived in the Arab world and in the larger Muslim world and to some extent by U.S. allies -- Western allies and for example Australia -- as evidence of a kind of hypocrisy, especially in view of one of the stated aims of the Iraq intervention, which was to free the Iraqis from precisely the kind of oppressive conduct that Saddam Hussein inflicted on the Iraqi people. Now the U.S. and perhaps the U.K. are perceived to have also been imposing [the same sort of conduct] on them," Stevenson said.
Bush has stood by his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, throughout the scandal, and has repeatedly said only a "small number" of people are to blame for the prison abuse. But he has apologized for the abuse, and pledged a full accounting.
"Because America is committed to the equality and dignity of all people, there will be a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuse of Iraqi detainees. The conduct that has come to light is an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency," Bush said.
France and Germany -- traditional U.S. allies who were staunchly opposed to the war in Iraq -- have been notably quiet on the issue. Observers suggest this may be because a complete U.S. collapse in Iraq could have devastating consequences for the West -- and because Europe is not eager to step into a situation that has become increasingly challenging for Washington.
This may be bad news for the United States, which is looking to the NATO military alliance to take on a security role in Iraq after the scheduled 30 June transfer of authority.
An article in today's "International Herald Tribune" cites an unnamed European official as saying "Europe realizes it can't do America's job, but wishes at this point there were another America doing it."
U.S. Major General Antonio Taguba has been investigating the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 11 May that the mistreatment was the result of a lack of leadership. But he said he has found no evidence of a policy directing such behavior.
"We did not find any evidence of a policy or a direct order given to these soldiers to conduct what they did. I believe that they did it on their own volition. I believe that they collaborated with several MI [military intelligence] interrogators at the lower level, based on the conveyance of that information through interviews and written statements," Taguba said.
Much depends on whether the world is convinced the prison abuses were indeed the work of lower-ranking soldiers. There arises the question of whether superiors knew what was happening: If they did, why was it not stopped; if they did not know, then why not?
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has urged the United States to restore its "moral leadership" of the world by carrying out a full investigation which answers such questions. Fischer said Germany has been shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment at Abu Ghurayb.
Fischer was holding talks in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who pledged that justice will be done.