I wasn't shocked that our government under Cheney/Bush casually authorized the brutal treatment of human beings in our custody. We've known George Bush and his cohorts were irresponsible hooligans since the moment they crossed the border into Iraq. That the U.S. Attorney General was instructed to write a pseudo defense of the practice seems, in retrospect, to be one of the less offensive examples of the complete disregard the Bushies had for American rule of law.
No, what as truly shocking is not the conduct of not-so-rogue CIA agents; it was the reaction of the average American to the report.
A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2011 showed that Americans have swung from being against torture several years ago to being much more accepting of it. A year ago an Associated Press poll showed the same thing. And in the wake of the release of the committee’s report last week I find that I’m surrounded by co-workers, friends, and family members who are at best ambivalent about torture and at worst downright supportive.
This reaction is not just an alarming trend, it's evidence of a sea change in America's view of itself. Apparently, a majority of Americans see themselves as no better than anyone else in the world. It puts the lie to the concept of American Exceptionalism. That’s the idea that, among nations, and especially among democratic nations, America is exceptional because if its unique mixture of commerce, republican democracy, and moral idealism. Alexis de Tocqueville first called the United States "exceptional" in the mid 19th century, noting that Americans were able to build a wealthy, powerful nation "without relapsing into barbarism."
Alas, it seems that America is no longer the nation de Tocqueville so admired. If a majority of us approve of the use of torture against suspected enemies, we have relapsed into barbarism and, in doing so, we have abdicated our exceptionalism.
We are, in fact, little better than the hated ISIS monster who stands over his kneeling victim and hacks off the head while spouting anti-American vitriol. We join the likes of Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, China, and the 80 percent of the rest of the world where torture is common. That’s hardly the profile of an “exceptional” country.
I understand that America's genesis, growth, and maturity were not without grievous departures from the barbarism that was once considered necessary for the building of a civilization. The genocide of native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, and the heartless exploitation of millions of immigrants to build U.S. industry are moral burdens we Americans must bear forever. We are convicted by the world, even as we ignore the crimes ourselves.
There was a time when we might have transcended our bloody, brutal beginnings. I grew up in the shadow of World War II, a conflict that seemed to prove what an exceptional nation America once was. We sacrificed the best we had to secure the safety and freedom of friends unable to fend off the monstrous armies that sought to subjugate them. In my childhood I heard dozens of stories about GIs who were tortured in prison camps, mostly in the Pacific. Movies were made about the horrors visited upon the defeated American soldiers (in fact, a new motion picture due out this Christmas season, "Unbroken," chronicles just such a horror, and the hero's efforts to overcome it.) The moral of such stories was always the same – Americans are better than the Japanese because we never tortured our prisoners. Of course, the racist subtext of Caucasian superiority over the Asian barbarian was lost on me at the time but would become clearer in time.
Nonetheless, we were better than "them." Americans may have run amok in the aftermath of battle, and no one denied that there were abuses, including rape, as Japanese islands fell to the Americans. But, according to the common belief at the time, American soldiers were prosecuted, imprisoned, even executed, for behaving the way other armies behaved. Never mind that black soldiers were executed far more often than whites, a fact documented in 1993 by Francis Klines; we proudly contrasted ourselves with the Russians, who raped between 95,000 and 130,000 German girls and women during and after the fall of Berlin (Antony Beevor, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945,"(2003)). Americans didn't routinely brutalize the women of a defeated foe. Americans didn’t plunder a beaten enemy’s national treasures. And Americans never, ever, tortured prisoners of war.
In time, of course, information leaked out that, yes, American soldiers and officers sometimes betrayed American ideals by acting barbarically toward our enemies. But even thern two things set us apart from others, and still made us "exceptional": Such behavior was a grotesque departure from policy and, when discovered, was openly and freely admitted. And there was a sense of horror that Americans could have done such a thing. Adults all around me would shake their heads sadly that our own military men could have dishonored their flag and country
The community that raised me instilled in me a reverence for human dignity, a love of civil liberty and due process of law, and the fierce belief that we Americans are more civilized than the Soviets who raped Berlin, the Japanese who eviscerated Nanking, and the Nazis who plundered Europe. Now that same community produces a politician who openly advocates torturing suspects to force confessions, and adults all around me grimly nod their heads in approval.
The question now is not whether America has lost its exceptional status among nations. The question is whether we can ever earn it back. I am not hopeful.