Torture, declared President Obama this week, in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”
No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America—the one with good values—does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.
The implication of the statements by Obama, King, and Yarmuth is that there is an essential, virtuous America whose purity the CIA defiled. But that’s silly. Aliens did not invade the United States on 9/11. In times of fear, war, and stress, Americans have always done things like this. In the 19th century, American slavery relied on torture. At the turn of the 20th, when America began assembling its empire overseas, the U.S. army waterboarded Filipinos during the Spanish-American War. As part of the Phoenix Program, an effort to gain intelligence during the Vietnam War, CIA-trained interrogators delivered electric shocks to the genitals of some Vietnamese communists, and raped, starved, and beat others.
America has tortured throughout its history. And every time it has, some Americans have justified the brutality as necessary to protect the country from a savage enemy. Others have called it counterproductive and immoral. At different moments, the balance of power between these two groups shifts. But neither side in these debates speaks for the “real America.” The real America includes them both. Morally, we contain multitudes.
Why does this matter? Because when you claim that the United States is intrinsically moral, and torture therefore represents an aberration, you undermine the fight against such practices. There is no innate moral sense that pushes America’s leaders to respect human rights. To the contrary, the U.S. political system is based on the recognition that since Americans, like all other human beings, are sinful creatures, and will abuse power, the best way to limit that abuse is to ensure that power is divided and balanced. In the 20th century, when American presidents helped establish first the League of Nations and then the United Nations, they recognized that—to a far more limited degree—the United States should submit to international laws and institutions that checked its power overseas. This stemmed in part from the belief that only by binding itself in systems of domestic and international law could the United States act differently from the totalitarian empires it opposed. The most dangerous aspect of totalitarianism, wrote Arthur Schlesinger in The Vital Center, was its attempt “to liquidate the tragic sense which gave man a sense of his limitations.”
Being a successful American politician today requires declaring that America is different, blessed, exceptional. Thus, when other countries torture, it reflects their basic character. When we torture, it violates ours. But the wisest American thinkers have found a way to reconcile this need to feel special with the recognition that, as human beings, Americans are just as fallen as everyone else. In the mid-20th century, men like Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, paradoxically, the more Americans recognized their sinfulness, and restrained it within systems of law, the more America would prove its superiority over those totalitarian systems that refused such restraints.
After 9/11, while George W. Bush was announcing that God had deputized America to spread liberty around the world, his government was shredding the domestic and international restraints against torture built up over decades, and injecting food into inmates’ rectums. Those actions were not “contrary to who we are.” They were a manifestation of who we are. And the more we acknowledge that, the better our chances of becoming something different in the years to come.