The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation, and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable – particularly the testimony in the Senate Armed Services Committee report on Cheney-Rumsfeld desperation to find links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that were later concocted as justification for the invasion, facts irrelevant. Former Army psychiatrist Maj. Charles Burney testified that “a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results”; that is, torture. The McClatchy press reported that a former senior intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue added that “The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime… [Cheney and Rumsfeld] demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration….. `There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder’.”
These were the most significant revelations, barely reported.
While such testimony about the viciousness and deceit of the administration should indeed be shocking, the surprise at the general picture revealed is nonetheless surprising. A narrow reason is that even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantanamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law – incidentally, a place that Washington is using in violation of a treaty that was forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons are alleged, but they are hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for secret prisons and rendition, and were fulfilled.
A broader reason is that torture has been routine practice from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and then beyond, as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire” — as George Washington called the new Republic – extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. Furthermore, torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion and economic strangulation that have darkened US history, much as in the case of other great powers. Accordingly, it is surprising to see the reactions even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: for example, that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for” (Paul Krugman). To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of history.
Occasionally the conflict between “what we stand for” and “what we do” has been forthrightly addressed. One distinguished scholar who undertook the task is Hans Morgenthau, a founder of realist international relations theory. In a classic study written in the glow of Camelot, Morgenthau developed the standard view that the US has a “transcendent purpose”: establishing peace and freedom at home and indeed everywhere, since “the arena within which the United States must defend and promote its purpose has become world-wide.” But as a scrupulous scholar, he recognized that the historical record is radically inconsistent with the “transcendent purpose” of America.
We should not, however, be misled by that discrepancy, Morgenthau advises: in his words, we should not “confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it.” What actually happened is merely the “abuse of reality.” To confound abuse of reality with reality is akin to “the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.” An apt comparison.
The release of the torture memos led others to recognize the problem. In the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen reviewed a book by British journalist Geoffrey Hodgson, who concludes that the US is “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” Cohen agrees that the evidence supports Hodgson’s judgment, but regards it as fundamentally mistaken. The reason is Hodgson’s failure to understand that “America was born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea forward.” The American idea is revealed by America’s birth as a “city on a hill,” an “inspirational notion” that resides “deep in the American psyche”; and by “the distinctive spirit of American individualism and enterprise” demonstrated in the Western expansion. Hodgson’s error is that he is keeping to “the distortions of the American idea in recent decades,” the “abuse of reality” in recent years.
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