That is exactly right: We got it wrong from the moment we declared that "everything changed," and it has stayed wrong. Lots of old rules did still applied, or should have.
Flouting them has proved corrosive.
Of course this is what happens when a traumatized nation gives its leaders license to hastily rewrite laws, reinterpret others in secret, and wield unaccountable power across the globe. Of course we invaded a country unnecessarily. Of course we've found self-justifying ways to torture illegally and kill innocents without taking responsibility for doing so. Of course we're still holding some innocents at Gitmo. Of course our civil liberties are being shredded and Muslim Americans are hit hardest. The world dealt us an unfair blow, and we used it as an excuse to break bad.
We permitted who knows what to be done in secret. What did we expect?
We became inured to the selfishness of our actions.
We slid predictably down the slope upon which we stepped, and the farther we go the uglier it gets.
We haven't hit bottom yet or anything close to it.
National-security officials still insist all their actions are taken for the sake of their country. Dissenters can't help but suspect that, at least sometimes, that's just something they tell themselves as they enjoy wielding extraordinary power and making their own rules as they go. In any case, their actions have done more to harm than help the United States, just as Walter White did more to harm than to help his family. That's what happens when people decide they need no longer abide by civilizational norms.
Core values are there for a reason.
What Americans have seen more clearly with every year are the consequences of granting ourselves extraordinary moral license, as if American exceptionalism means that anything we do is justified so long as there's a chance defensible ends will be advanced. It's Walter White logic we embraced—and it enabled morally monstrous behavior. Many legal and moral constraints serve as vital checks on human nature, and that doesn't change when you hire Saul Goodman or John Yoo to get around them.
The elaborate legal apologia for U.S. behavior obscures beneath jargon certain hard truths:
America is not justified in torturing because someone might have intelligence that may prove useful.
America is not justified in invading any country because it may one day pose a threat.
America is not justified in holding anyone on earth prisoner for as long as it likes, without presenting any evidence or issuing any charges or holding any trial, due to a chance he's dangerous.
America is not justified in killing innocents with drones and fleeing the scene like a hit-and-run driver because it would be inconvenient for us to bear the consequences of our actions.
America is not justified in spying on anyone and everyone on earth, just because it's possible that invading the privacy of hundreds of millions might make us infinitesimally safer.