It is expected of every major politician that he or she affirm “American exceptionalism” — the idea that this country not only occupies an extraordinary place in the world and in history, but that the country and its people are exceptionally good. This week’s release of a report detailing torture of terror suspects carried out under the Bush Administration, however, has renewed old divisions and for some has called into question America’s moral standing.
Is “American exceptionalism” fact or fiction? What should we make of the torture report? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the matter.
Let’s be charitable instead of divisive for a moment.
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After 9/11, Americans were so scared and frenzied that it is completely understandable that some of those in charge of protecting us would resort to extreme methods. Dick Cheney went on “Meet the Press” the weekend after the attack and told us that the government would have to work on the “dark side.” Most listeners had an inkling of what that meant at the time, and approved. So most of us who were citizens at the time of the attack probably have a little bit of the torture report’s blood on our hands.
Furthermore, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Yes, Republicans initiated the torture described in this week’s report. But there’s evidence that key Democratic members of Congress were presented evidence of the torture while it was still policy, and acquiesced. So there are very few people in the political class with clean hands.
Yet an evil thing done in a panicked frenzy is still an evil thing. We became that which we had for so long condemned. The techniques we used? Picked up from Chinese communists, who used them expressly to force false confessions from prisoners. Torture was banned under both domestic law and international treaties — including one signed by Ronald Reagan — because we knew that torture was something done only by the “bad guys.”
Finally, torture did not make us safer. Instead, when news emerged — at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere — it hardened hearts against America, and created more warriors willing to attack and give their lives in the fight against us. It was not a help.
If America is indeed exceptional — and, often, it has been and can be again — it is because it does exceptional things and behaves exceptionally, not because we have a hall pass from history or the behavior expected of civilized nations.
Are we exceptional? We will be if we let the torture report chasten us into better behavior.
Remember what America looked and felt like after 9/11. Nobody knew if or when another attack would come. For a fleeting moment, the vast majority of Americans united in the cause of crushing our enemies. We wanted Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike. Above all, we wanted to go back to living our lives as we had before that day — by any means necessary.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report comes at a moment when America is a deeply divided country. Democrats led by departing committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, have used the report to cudgel the CIA and the Bush administration. Senate Republicans wanted no part of it.
Feinstein for her part knew what the CIA was up to. In 2002, she said the 9/11 attacks meant the United States would “have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.” Only after the gory details made the front page of the New York Times did Feinstein seem to find a conscience.
Defenders of “enhanced interrogation” insist the program yielded “actionable intelligence.” Osama bin Laden is dead. Plenty of terrorists are dead, too.
Were they the right terrorists? Who knows? There seems to be no shortage of fanatics running riot in the Middle East and South Asia. And the countries we believed had been liberated are neither free nor peaceful nor especially friendly to us.
President Obama last year redefined the war on terror as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” Whatever you want to call it, the war continues with no end in sight. And how could there be an end when Congress and President Obama (or his predecessor for that matter) have never defined what victory would look like?
Was it worth it? Not if the United States remains in a perpetual state of “persistent, targeted efforts.”
For all of that, however, Americans remain an exceptional, conscientious and freedom-loving people. We deserve better than the fools and hypocrites who presume to govern us.
Mr. Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Mr. Mathis is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine. Reach them at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/benandjoel.