Tom Ricks reflects on the American reaction to 9/11 – “Rumsfeld, America, and apologies” – and how his own sense of the world has changed: “I never expected to live in a country whose government officially embraced torture.” He points to a “crack” by Donald Rumsfeld, a typical right-wingism on President Obama’s supposed compulsive apologizing for America, and suggests that, as proud of being an American as he, Ricks, might be, it would be easier to be even prouder if not for Bush-Rumsfeld policies. He concludes:
Torture and other abuse of people under American control was more than a crime, it was a strategic blunder: You can’t win a war by undermining your own values, the things your country stands for. (Nor should you start wars on false premises, btw.) If that were not enough, the inept conduct of the war overseen by Rumsfeld in Iraq for three years until he was defenestrated late in 2006 almost certainly helped enflame the insurgency and so resulted in the deaths of American soldiers. Maybe he could apologize for some of that?
Ricks’ post led a Spanish reader, Pasaxe, citing his own country’s history of extra-judicial measures against “ETA terrorists,” to ask how Americans felt about Bush Administration policies.
Now, it’s no secret that I’ve pendulumed far away from many positions I held and argued even up to a year ago, but I’ve still not re-thought my past positions on torture/interrogation – in short, modified Dershowitz: Violence by operatives of the state in defense of the state will occur whether we want it to or not, so it should be put under democratic control and supervision, including the inevitable use of forms of physical coercion in extreme situations.
Pasaxe’s question provides a possible departure point for beginning the re-assessment For now, I’ll just share the same observations I left as a comment at Ricks’ blog, under the heading “Americans were split,” and see if any of you all can help me move them along further:
You can’t have a popular culture that embraces TV shows like 24, just to cite one high profile example, and expect anything remotely approaching a uniform condemnation of “enhanced interrogation.” In addition to representing a position of moral ambiguity on the question of physical coercion in the abstract, that show also typified a socio-political reaction to a sense of being under threat and a resultant willingness to take any means necessary, or possibly necessary, to remove the threat: 9/11 mission accomplished.
For many Americans, typically gravitating to the political right, of course, it’s pure “realism” to say that it’s an ugly world and “those people” are savages who don’t understand anything else but force and anyone who thinks differently is a lily-livered ivory-towered pointy-headed leftwing multiculturalist and so on. On that note, I think it’s reasonable to suspect both that a significant portion of the population presumed that we were already quietly torturing, and, furthermore, that they were right on two levels: The group of 24 fans includes some portion of military and law enforcement personnel not always, to say the least, working under close and careful supervision. Second, the populace would be right in the sense that we have long used information obtained by allied regimes and non-state actors who were not restrained by oversight in any way.
Finally, the “it’s a cruel world, get used to it” reaction obtains substantial support not just from our own customary hypocrisy about not getting our hands dirty but letting others do so for us, but from our willingness to set aside human suffering, caused by our direct and indirect acts of military and non-military violence, that objectively far exceeds anything done under interrogation procedures. The critics of torture have a valid and important moral point, but we are already schooled to set aside violent and in some cases massive destruction of life, limb, and fortune among civilian populations as “collateral damage.” For that matter our economic system/consumer society is built from the ground up on the displacement and off-shoring of exploitation, massive social and environmental disruption, and so on. In short, our culture doesn’t, at the bottom line, have much difficulty absorbing reports on the water-boarding of 9/11 accomplices or even the sexual humiliation of detainees in Iraq.
So, Ricks may be right. Maybe Rumsfeld ought to apologize. A drop in the ocean.
End comment. I’ll just add: How can we have an honest confrontation with “official torture,” either to make a truly meaningful apology or to put in place a sound and durable policy, if we are not willing to address the full moral context that made the resort to torture, and still makes it, not just possible but virtually certain?
On a lighter note, Alexis Madrigal posts this Rumsfeld classic – an authentic memo that Rumsfeld himself provided from his own site: