I’m convinced that at some point in the future this era of American politics, lasting from the 9-11 attacks to the election of President Obama, will be one of shame for America. I’m not talking so much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite problems now in Afghanistan, few people defended the evil Taliban regime and perhaps our biggest error was not to stay and spend the time and money necessary to reconstruct Afghan civil society. Kabul was a bustling place back in 1978 before the Soviet invasion, the country had problems, but nothing like the current ones. Done right, we might now have been looking at a military and political success story, perhaps with much of the Taliban and even Bin Laden behind bars.
Iraq was clearly a major error. In policy terms, it made it impossible to truly do what was necessary to keep Afghanistan from falling apart, and it became a quagmire that swallowed up the Bush Administration and Republican dominance of US politics. If you didn’t have the Iraq war, you wouldn’t have President Obama. It has made it harder to deal with the economic crisis, harmed America’s position in the world, stretched US military capacities and showed the limits of US power. The idea that success in Iraq would put pressure on Iran and Syria yielded the opposite result: failures in Iraq emboldenend Iran and Syria.
Yet for all the problems associated with Iraq, if it wasn’t for the use of torture and the indefinite detention of/abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and at foreign CIA ‘detention centers’ across the globe, the amount of shame would not be as great. There was at least a rationale behind the invasion of Iraq and a belief, no matter how naive, that somehow this would ‘spread democracy.’ Most of the deaths there have not been at our hands, even if they are the result of US actions igniting a civil war and ethnic violence. That, at the very least, implies shared blame (and a lot of it going to al qaeda, who did all it could to ignite the violence).
What the US did to suspected terrorists and prisoners by allowing torture (under the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ perhaps the most vile euphenism since ‘ethnic cleansing’) and anything the top levels of the Bush Administration thought appropriate, is the source of the greatest shame. This sounds harsh, but we may find comparisons to totalitarian regimes or even Nazi Germany hard to avoid (indeed, such comparisons are made consistently in overseas media).
Are these comparisons valid? On the one hand, no. Comparisons to Nazi Germany, for instance, are so steeped in emotion due to the holocaust that even if one can find legitimate points to compare, it will end up being clouded by the enormity of Germany’s crimes. And, though the public went along with it, guided by the usual mix of nationalism (it’s not hard to find blogs where posters and commentators seem to love the testosterone rush of condoning such techniques and championing them) and naivete (our government is trustworthy, so we should trust them), the real perpetrators were a small group of lawyers and bureaucrats who defined their powers as being able to even suspend the US Constitution and everything the country stands for if they thought it appropriate.
Ron Suskind, quoting Dick Cheney, calls this the “one percent doctrine:” if there is 1% a chance the country could be at risk, then anything goes to work against it, even torture. This is, at it’s most crass and basic form, a sacrifice of principle to fear. It is literally a sacrifice of the principles upon which this country was founded.
But, one might argue, after 9-11 there was a kind of paranoia in the country, people feared another strike any day, and panic reigned. Well, that’s the goal of terrorism. We should expect our government not to give into panic. We should expect our leaders to recognize that first of all, compared to the dangers of all out nuclear war which we lived with daily in much of the 20th century, this threat was relatively small and managable. Or, if you want a less sympathetic read, they should not have used 9-11 to amass unprecedented power and control. There clearly should have been a firm voice saying “the last thing we can let the terrorists do is force us to give up our core principles.”
Instead, the terrorists won. The US engaged in vile acts, with photos to prove it, that now can be thrown in our face any time we act self-righteous about our values and human rights. We have been shown to be hypocritical in terms of what we claim we stand for on the world stage, while being weakened in ill advised conflicts. Osama Bin Laden and the attacks of 9-11 did little to harm the US in a meaningful way. Our response, however, has done dramatic harm (including the cheap credit released to keep the stock and housing markets up, helping create a severe economic crisis).
We can’t undo the past. Prosecutions in cases like this would be very difficult for a variety of reasons. But we can let the light show on what was done, and how. We can show who wrote the memos approving the acts, and what the rationale was. We can be truthful and open, and vow “never again.” We also can learn from this: it becomes easy in times of fear and uncertainty to give in to the baser instincts and sacrifice principle for political expediency. And perhaps in the grand scheme of things, there are cases so extreme that such must be done. But nothing can justify the actions undertaken the last eight years that embraced systematic and approved torture. We must be open, and cast aside those who say this should be ‘one of life’s mysteries,’ as if we shouldn’t question our leaders if they violate core values. To be open, honeset and to admit error is strength, not weakness. The strong apologize, the fearful think apologies show weakness. We should be strong enough to live according to our principles.