Torture from Afar

Since the time the torture memoranda were released last week, I've been in parts of rural China where most people would have a hard time naming the current US president, let alone expressing a view about how he should handle those who endorsed a policy of torture or who carried it out. Now that I'm returning to big-city China, I see that the memoranda are inside-page news in the region's papers. This is so even in Hong Kong, where the editors can judge it on normal "news" grounds and not with whatever complications go into mainland Chinese reporting of the issue.
 
Nonetheless I contend that a full process of American self-examination and accountability will make a tremendous long-term difference in international views of the United States. Even among those who at the moment don't know that there is any controversy going on within the United States.
 
For as annoyed as foreigners may get with America and Americans, there have been two saving graces in the world's opinions of our country. One has been its permeability. Anywhere you go, someone has an uncle or cousin in America. The other, less openly stated, has been a  belief that at some point there are rules in America. Long periods may pass when the rules are ignored. Big boys may bend the rules in their favor. Some offenses are never made right. And so on. But in the end, the American system is supposed to recognize injustice and respond -- including with public accountability for even the mightiest figures. It has this in common with the British and some other systems -- which is what Gandhi relied on in knowing he could "shame" the Brits. For all the increases in liberty within China over the last generation, this is a striking difference with the world's currently-rising power. No one expects China's current leadership to conduct a "truth commission" about the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen. But people finally expect America to apply its own rules, even against its own people. Fulfilling that expectation is not sufficient for restoring America's image international standing. But it is necessary.
 
So even though most of the world's population has no idea of what is in the torture memos or of what will happen because of them, in the long run the Administration's decisions will have a significant worldwide effect. Being true to the world's idea of America does not (in my opinion) crucially turn on prosecuting individual CIA or military interrogators. Instead it depends on full clarifying disclosure of the reasoning that led to these practices -- thus, maximum disclosure of the memos -- and full examination of the decisions that public officials made.
 
At this point I don't think it's sensible to talk about legal sanctions for Administration officials from George W. Bush on down. But the historical record of what he approved, and what Dick Cheney recommended, what David Addington egged on, and what John Yoo and (sitting Federal Judge) Jay Bybee and others rationalized, should be established in unambiguous detail. For this, some American version of a "Truth Commission" is probably the best solution. Many other countries would not bother. America -- to be true to itself -- must. This will matter in the world's eyes. More important, it  will matter to us.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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