There are so many issues that need to be addressed in this nation — so much harm done in seven short years that must be undone, or at least mitigated. But there are some issues which, at least in the long view, rise above others — issues that in and of themselves can come to define a time, a nation and a people.
Torture is one such issue.
As the editors of the Washington Monthly note, in introducing a series of 35 essays from prominent Americans — ranging from military leaders, to elected officials to diplomats — on the subject of this nation’s torture of terrorism suspects, torture stands alone.
Over the past decade, voters have had many legitimate worries: stagnant wages, corruption in Washington, terrorism, and a botched war in Iraq. But we believe that when Americans look back years from now, what will shame us most is that our country abandoned a bedrock principle of civilized nations: that torture is without exception wrong.
What’s so sad about this, of course, is the fact that this deep stain to our nation’s moral standing is not only wholly self-inflicted, it’s also utterly unnecessary. Experts have long agreed that torture is an extremely ineffective method for obtaining intelligence, because while it may generate a lot of information, the reliability of that information is near zero.
As so many people have noted so many times before, when you torture people, they’ll say just about anything to make you stop, whether or not it’s true.
But let’s be honest. Bush & Co. didn’t start torturing people because they thought it was the only, or even the best, way to collect intelligence. They tortured people because they thought that was the tough thing to do. And given the choice between doing what works and doing what makes him feel like a tough guy, Bush will always choose the latter.
Bear with me on this point as I quote, at some length, from a public letter our friend Winston wrote to George W. Bush almost two years ago:
But as Charles Dickens said, I should really begin at the beginning. And for our purposes, the beginning involves your self-image.
And the central feature of that self-image isn’t, as most people probably think, Christianity or even Republican politics — it’s toughness. Whatever anyone else may think of you, when you look in the mirror, you see a tough guy looking back.
That’s something I think a lot of people have missed. All that business about bringing bin Laden back dead or alive, smoking him out and telling the Iraqi rebels to bring it on wasn’t just political posturing, was it? That’s really how you see yourself. And if to some folks this seems a little inconsistent with your having avoided service in Vietnam in your younger days, well, that’s their problem, isn’t it?
And one of the things about tough guys is that they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about things like law, ethics and proper procedure. They get the job done; and they get it done by whatever means necessary.
Dirty Harry never let a bunch of sissy constitutional rights stop him from doing what needed to be done.
And I don’t seem to ever recall John Wayne requesting an environmental impact statement before driving cattle across grasslands.
If a shell-shocked soldier needed a good slapping, George Patton didn’t coddle him, mumble a bunch of psycho mumbo jumbo or send him home to his mommy. Hell no, he slapped the crap out of him.
And when somebody crossed Michael Corleone, there was no negotiating, no diplomacy and no second chances: They got whacked, end of story.
I mean, let’s be honest, President Bush; there’s a lot more Michael Corleone, than Jesus Christ, in your chosen style of governance.
Another thing about tough guys is that they like hanging out with their own kind.
So after your “election” as president, you purposefully surrounded yourself with other tough guys — Cheney, Rove, Bolton, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and all the rest. And from that moment on, all you tough guys pretty much just talked to each other, didn’t you?
Admit it: It was kind of enjoyable making fun of those others, people like Colin Powell — the ones who insisted on talking about diplomacy, negotiations and all that other wimpy stuff.
Then along came Sept 11 and the War on Terrorism; and to you they were like gifts from God, weren’t they? Suddenly toughness was in fashion. Here was your chance, your moment, your destiny. The ultimate tough guy turn on: Leading a great nation into war; bending the world before your will.
If anybody, or any country, got in your way, they got whacked.
And, at first, the whole nation was marching with you. You were untouchable.
What a rush that must have been!
* * *
Torture prisoners? Hold people for years without charge at Guantánamo? Illegally transfer prisoners to other countries to be tortured? Doctor the results of scientific studies? Hide public documents based upon the flimsiest of excuses? Take revenge on governmental servants, even leaders in the military, who refuse to blindly adopt the Bush version of “truth?” Provide Congress with deliberately misleading economic and budgetary statistics and projections? “Out” a CIA agent?
Shit, why sweat the small stuff?
And it runs deep, doesn’t it President Bush?
* * *
You’re one tough son of a bitch, President Bush. And for awhile there, you got one hell of a ride.
This will make for quite a morality play on some far off day in the future, when you stop to think about it: the tale of the most powerful nation in the world — hell, the most powerful nation the world has ever known — reduced to depravity by the childish insecurities of one very small man.
And it will also be the story of how we, the citizens of that mighty republic, allowed ourselves to become complicit in this Boy King’s crimes, reduced to coconspirators by our fear and apathy.
It will be an ugly story, no doubt, but one, I hope, which will be repeated often. You see, I don’t want future generations to cut us any breaks, to “feel our pain.” They can condemn us freely and without reservation for our embrace of torture, for all I care.
I have only one request to make to them: heap on us all of the contempt you want, but just one thing, please, don’t follow our example.