Low Point in the American Experiment

December, 2014

Washington -- The American Experiment in government has always had its highs and lows. While one can hope and believe that the underlying trend over decades and centuries is toward a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, one need not be a follower of Howard Zinn to know that the experiment has sometimes fallen short.

Among the lowest points ever is the resort in the twenty-first century to American torture, along with a misguided discussion of whether or not it works. Of course it works: to break people unmercifully to elicit truth, falsehood, and everything in between; to knock ourselves off our pedestal as a country that lives up to its ideals; to subject our own troops to like treatment; to recruit new enemies against our experiment. Torture is effective, no doubt.

Letter-writers to the Washington Post on December 17, 2014, expressed similar thoughts:

• "Perhaps I was naive when I took an oath as an infantry lieutenant to protect and defend the Constitution and to think that part of what being a U.S. Army officer meant was that I was morally better than my enemy: I abide by the Geneva Conventions, a measure of decency I'd hope to receive if captured."

• "My first priority is not to be kept safe by any means necessary. I am extremely offended by proclamations that the American people want to be kept safe above all else."

• "As a teenager I read of Soviet torture of those considered enemies of the state. How awful, I thought, if the Russian people knew what was being done in the name of public safety and preserving their way of life. How could an ordinary person feel anything but shame? How could anyone defend torture? I was glad to be living in the home of the brave. And here we are, all illusions gone."

• "For many Americans, protecting and defending the Constitution and our principles of individual freedom and due process of law are the highest duty we expect from our public servants. I believe we became a nation of cowards the day Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush lost their heads after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks."

• "Who are these men who presume to know better than all of us, who have convinced themselves that, unlike all other times in history when our country has been threatened, the United States can now act as barbarously as our enemies?"

• "We send our military off to die, but we are afraid to risk another attack because we failed to torture the right person? I'm willing to take that chance if it means we can hold our heads up again as Americans and stand for something..."

• "[T]he United States must show the world we're committed to truth and justice; prosecutions must follow."

Indeed, prosecutions must follow. It is beyond ironic that the only person imprisoned in the U.S. is the one who blew the whistle on the torturers, John Kiriakou. Prosecutions should start with those who killed prisoners without due process and those who obstructed justice by covering up excesses that went beyond even fig-leaf legal opinions defining torture down.

Seventy some years ago, two very different people were born into the world in the same city, Lincoln, Nebraska. Dick Cheney, born in 1941, seems somewhere in life to have missed out on grasping what makes America special, and what is necessary to keep it special. His early career began with a mediocre record in college (dropped out twice, never completed his Ph.D.); he was convicted twice of driving under the influence of alcohol; he then avoided military service on account of having "other priorities" when it was his time to serve his country. I was born in Lincoln in 1943, never dropped out of anything, never drove drunk, performed my service as a navy officer when duty called and, in a career that also took me to Washington and abroad, always strived to uphold my country as something special in the world. Any version of torture to me is anathema, because it is so un-American. Yet it is Cheney and his ilk who wear the American flag on their lapels, as if that makes them patriots.

Note to my fellow Lincolnite: I'm still willing to take on some risk, just as are the letter-writing citizens above. Don't sell us so short. And think it through: torture is hardly something that reduces risk to the general population. If anything, torture increases risk. You could do your country a real patriotic service, at long last, by publicly acknowledging that you were wrong to degrade America as you have done and, as an act of penance, ask the country once again to aspire to fulfilling its ideals.