Last fall I nearly got into a shouting match with some conservative friends of mine when I suggested that the Bush Administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved criminal acts at the highest levels. Specifically, I expressed my concern that the then Vice President had become a war criminal in the service of what he perceived to be leadership and patriotism. In recent months, I haven’t revisited the subject with my friends, but apparently more than a few thoughtful conservatives have begun to worry about some of the same issues.
The October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, for example, has as its cover story an examination of systematic torture in detention centers operated by the CIA and by American military personnel. The article, by Andrew Sullivan, is hard to read both because of its anguished tone (Sullivan was a Bush supporter in 2000) and because of the clarity with which it documents the descent of what were probably good people into the fear, rage and self-delusion that allowed them first to justify torture and then to conduct it with enthusiasm.
Like Sullivan, I find it hard to imagine anything more fundamentally un-American and anti-American than torture. As more becomes known about what went on in the prisons operated in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the CIA’s so-called “black sites”) it becomes harder and harder to believe that any of it happened by accident. Worse, our national conversation continues to include those who insist that anything Americans do is justified and that the face America should present to the world is one of implacable authoritarianism.
This bombastic and imperious drivel from arch right-winger Cal Thomas, for example, seems to be saying that Obama can’t protect us from “them” because he doesn’t make the rest of the world sufficiently afraid of America. Cal assumes that we know (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that the only thing “they” understand is fear and that “they” are everyone in the world who isn’t a white American who shares Cal’s religion of condemnation and politics of hatred.
No matter how strident the Cals of the world become, however, the truth of the matter remains: torture by any name is horrible and wrong. Torture never rests on the side of the angels, no matter who does it.
But is that even the worst of it? Well, not from where I sit. To my mind, when America becomes a country that tortures prisoners, we cease to be America.