Thursday, November 11, 2010

Celebrating Torture

If President Obama were the monster partisan the Big Lie Right likes to make believe he is, George W. Bush would be on trial right now instead of signing autographs on a book tour. That's just the truth.

And if you think hyperbolic, partisan rhetoric is bad now, imagine what would be going on if this Presidential administration (already out to destroy America, your children and apple pie if the right-wing is to be believed) had put the former Presidential administration (just some good ole boys, never meanin' no harm...) under inquiry for torture. Wow. I'd likely be dead in a gutter somewhere, killed trying to stop all the rioting as our nation tore itself to shreds.

Instead, President Obama and his administration refused to hold anyone in the Bush Administration accountable for a regime of torturing prisoners and then destroying the evidence of that behavior. Thusly free of accountablilty, Bush gets to run a victory lap, and admit to our Western allies and the rest of the world that he signed the orders to waterboard prisoners, among other forms of violent information extraction.

Waterboarding is viewed, by most of the Western world, to be torture. At least, it is when our enemies do it. When we beat our enemies at war, we get to prosecute their officials who waterboarded and tortured those under their control, after all.

But we shouldn't let our exceptionalism get into our own heads.

Dahlia Lithwick explains it like this:

The persistent failure to hold anyone accountable at any level for years of state-sanctioned abuse speaks louder than their words. It has taken this issue from a legal question to a matter of personal taste. What we choose to define as torture is now just another policy disagreement, like extending the Bush tax cuts or picking a caterer. This is precisely the kind of sliding-scale ethical guesswork the rule of law should preclude.


Luckily, this is America, and the only reason we think torture is outrageous is when we idealize our own history. It only violates the "idea of America." We only see this as an abberation because, like the Tea Party, we too have a mixed up notion in our heads that what happens these days is "bad" compared to that which has gone before us.

Let me break it down for you: This nation has done worse. Far, far worse. If you think this is the worst this country has done, you need to get over it. Historically speaking, the Sioux and Apache might consider waterboarding a little tickle compared to what they went through. Sherman may not burn in hell for torching Atlanta and Columbia, but he sure will for passing out blankets infected with smallpox to children.

You think "rule of law" precludes "sliding scale ethical guesswork?" You think that's something of an aberration to some great, justice-seeking American nation? Try this: Andrew Jackson, great purveyor of white-man freedom, once told the Supreme Court where to go and what to do with their decisions before he seized all Cherokee lands and property and made them walk from Georgia to Oklahoma, with inadequate food and clothing. Women, children and elderly, no exceptions.

They called this little act of Constitutional dismemberment and ethnic cleansing the "Trail of Tears." In response, an angry nation put Jackson's face on the $20 bill, named no small number of cities after him, and he got a nice statue right there in the middle of New Orleans' French Quarter. He is affectionately known as "Old Hickory" and an "American Lion."

I'll bet I get called "America-hating" just for bringing up those facts.

And while the wounds unsalved with justice fester for far longer than they should, we continue the march forward at such a rapid pace that we are able, as a culture, to forget and scab over those wounds of the past. Same as it ever was. This is just another episode in our nation's long, sordid history of morally repugnant behavior in a world filled with great nations who continually engage in morally repugnant behavior.

At least our nation has a saving grace - a sizeable portion of our population expresses outrage over our moral excesses. Slowly, over time, we try to move away from the evil that is perpetrated in our names. Every once in a while, we bend the long arc of the universe towards justice by appealing to the better angels of our nature. But mostly that arc is flat, and you tend to find Americans bashing someone's head against it. The stakes are high, and this demonstrates how high.

And no, I'm not trying to excuse morally repugnant behavior. I'm trying to put it in perspective. If you want to cut down on such behavior, you have to own the debate and shape the culture before the orders get signed. If you don't want people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez or John Yoo in charge of foreign and legal policy, you're going to have to do better than Al Gore and John Kerry. Try to shame the American voting population to see things your way at your own risk - they aren't listening.

One of the only reasons we get away with this stuff is because we tend to be on the winning side of things, and that gives us a grand historical luxury that is a cornerstone to our culture. One of the other reasons is that we are a republic, and the people must take responsibility for the actions of their government. Sometimes, the crime is petty enough that the stone throwers will line up (like the Clinton impeachment). Other times, the culture wraps its shame in a false bravado, attempting to justify the unjustifiable, hoping the next generation will get it right where we got it wrong.

While the next generation probably ignores the whole thing, thinking such things could never really happen in America. History repeating, and all that.

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