Low Point in the American Experiment

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.

Cromnibus Hypocrisy

Washington -- Congress has passed the Cromnibus (The Continuing Resolution plus Omnibus appropriations act), to much disdain from those who know the wretched provisions in it. A sleight-of-hand move of higher education money in the bill is perfectly described in a news headline: "Tom Harkin Wants To Take Money From College Students to Pay Reviled Loan Contractors."

Advocates for financially needy students have heaped abuse on Senator Harkin for this. I couldn't agree more that this is a bad provision. But on reflection, two things bother me even more than what this provision will do.

First, Senator Harkin has long been a champion of protecting the interests of financially needy students. This must be taken into account. He has often stood alone, courageously taking on the for-profit schools that have misused federal tax dollars and ruined the lives of countless cynically exploited students and their families. He has done this in the face of many of his Congressional colleagues who take campaign contributions from this unverschämt industry; these contributions are almost totally recycled federal tax dollars. He has also made accrediting bodies do their job, through his Senate hearings that publicly shamed them. We are all in his debt for this work. Thank you, Senator Harkin.

Second, some of those jumping on the bandwagon of criticism of this provision have little or no moral high ground from which to object, however odious the shift of funding may be. The American Council on Education wrote this about Harkin's taking some $300 million from a Pell grant surplus account for the benefit of loan collectors:

[W]e oppose any efforts to weaken this proven, successful program by depleting the current surplus. With Pell Grants projected to return to significant shortfalls in the near future, stripping existing funding will needlessly endanger the near-term health and stability of the program. Congress has cut federal financial aid repeatedly over the last few years. Benefits have been eliminated, and students are paying more for their federal student loans. Students cannot afford to continue subsidizing other areas of the budget. We urge you to support America’s students and reject any proposals that would weaken the Pell Grant Program.

This is hypocrisy. If anyone has weakened the Pell program over the years, it is much of the membership of ACE. Many colleges and universities, by manipulating their own institutional aid, routinely repackage Pell grants, taking financial aid away from low income students that the program is supposed to help, thereby capturing the funds for other purposes. This amounts to billions of dollars annually, many times over the amount at issue in the Cromnibus act. Are students being forced to subsidize other areas of the budget, as ACE claims? Yes, indeed. But it is the ACE membership itself that is a far greater culprit than the Harkin provision, when one looks at the shifting of subsidies within college budgets. Are students being required to take out more student loans? Yes, but ACE needs to look in the mirror as to who is behind this.

Moreover, ACE has been noticably absent from helping with any of the heavy lifting involved in curtailing for-profit school abuses and reforming accreditation. They have let others do the work and take the heat.

And why does ACE continue to use the word "proven" with regard to Pell grants? Because repeating it over and over will make it so? It will not; the program has never been rigorously evaluated by the Department of Education. Many attempts by economists and others, over decades, have failed to conclude that the program is the success often claimed. No one wishes more than I do that these studies are wrong, but the evidence just isn't there to back up the claims for the program. Finally, ACE, of all organizations, should be more careful with its use of language. Sloppy use of the the word proven is often evidence that the user does not understand the philosophy and methods of science. This should be beneath the nation's leading higher education association.