In Breaking Bad, Walter White starts off as the most sympathetic of all possible meth cooks. A brilliant chemist, he is stuck teaching bored students at an Albuquerque high school. He does his best to support his pregnant wife and their partially disabled son, but earns so little that he must work night shifts at an area car wash just to make ends meet. Despite it all, he soldiers on dutifully until he is unexpectedly diagnosed with lung cancer. That trauma changes him. Suddenly he confronts the prospect of dying penniless. He doesn't want an impoverished widow or two kids without a college fund or even a small savings account. So he resolves to cook (and later sell) just enough meth to give his family a middle-class existence.
Of course, his plan from the start is to manufacture a dangerous narcotic. His profits will come from addicts whose lives are being ruined by his product. But we still begin in his corner. We see White as an unlucky man playing the hand he's dealt in a fallen world, where drug addicts will get high with or without his blue meth. Isn't it better, in a way, for him to manufacture Albuquerque's choice high? At least he isn't going to accidentally blow up his lab during a cook, or put out an impure product. Surely it's better for a dying, middle-class family man to be enriched than Tuko Salamanca, the cartel-backed sociopath who White and his product displace.
That's what we told ourselves.
America sometimes reminds me of Walter White.
Not in every way, of course. There isn't anything like a perfect parallel between the plot of Breaking Bad and the course that the U.S. has taken since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the unexpected trauma that made us look at our place in the world anew. I certainly don't think Breaking Bad's writers were attempting an allegory. But I submit that the show's arc (especially Walter White's character arc) imparts lessons about moral logic and its consequences that the U.S. ought to heed.
White starts off with everyone's sympathy. But as soon as the writers have us rooting for him to get rich (and get out) before he gets caught, they produce five seasons that amount to a slowly unfolding rebuke to everyone who felt any investment in his success.
The source of our moral discomfort?
White "has cooked crystal meth in bulk, hooking addicts from his native Albuquerque all the way to Prague," Ross Douthat explains. "He has personally killed at least seven people and is implicated in the deaths of hundreds more. He has poisoned an innocent child, taken out a contract on his longtime partner, and stood by and watched a young woman choke." Every season is more riveting than the last, in part because having bought into the logic that prompted White to start cooking, we are implicated in the predictable consequences, and they just keep getting more gruesome. Of course he wouldn't be satisfied with the initial, relatively modest sum of money that he sought. Of course he would become implicated in the violence of the black market. Of course lying to his wife and son would be corrosive, and of course exempting himself from core mores and norms would put him on a slippery slope, where the prospect of being caught or killed keeps helping him to rationalize "one last" horrific moral compromise, even when there are alternatives.
At some point, White crosses a line. Breaking Bad fans may not agree on the particular moment, but he eventually does something that causes a given viewer to think, "That's unforgivable."
But as abhorrent as we find his worst transgressions, as much as we tell ourselves that we could never condone them, we can't help but see how they flowed logically, if not quite inevitably, from the initial course of moral compromise he chose. It causes us to reflect on the earliest episodes and to reconsider our initial judgement. Is the lesson that it was always wrong to grant White any license to break bad? Or is there an alternative trajectory in which White could have cooked for a while without becoming a moral monster or doing much harm?
Either way, viewers can't escape the fact that White rationalizes even his worst atrocities with logic not unlike what viewers condoned when he first cooked. I'm not a bad person. I'm just trying to fulfill my responsibility to provide for my family. Bad circumstances forced me into these compromising positions—when I do bad things, it isn't the same as when other drug dealers do them. After all, I am not a criminal. Implicit all along is an unspoken rationalization. Walter White is a man who believes in his own exceptionalism. That's how he manages to think of himself as a good person, even as he orchestrates the death of an innocent man and poisons a child. As chilling as most viewers found that self-justifying quality, how many forgave him lesser sins early on in part because they saw him as an exceptional case?
Americans are, like Walter White, a self-justifying sort.
We see ourselves as exceptional. Often times we behave as if the rules that apply to the rest of the world, rules we want constraining them, don't and needn't really apply to us. We're not a regular nation, not like the Chinese or the Brazilians or even the French. Take it from The New York Times, our paper of record. Other nations forcing water into a prisoner's lungs is torture.
When we do it? Enhanced interrogation.
America doesn't torture. We're the good guys!
After 9/11 we wanted national-security officials to provide for our safety. Understandably so. They felt tremendous pressure to fulfill that responsibility. Couldn't they have done so without transgressing against basic laws, mores, and norms? Many in the Bush Administration didn't think so, but they didn't fully share that with us. They decided on what they thought was best for us, but thought telling us would be a bad idea: We might not go along with their plans for torture, indefinite detention, or warrantless spying. To be honest, many of us didn't really want to know the details of policy, or to follow the ideas of those making it to their logical conclusions.
What scary implications!
Over time, the consequences of the moral license that national-security officials granted themselves after 9/11 became impossible to ignore. Different Americans awakened to reality at different times. Some became apologists for the people in charge. A word or statute could always be twisted to launder their actions into what passed as legal, and it was easy enough to conflate "legal" with morally defensible.
Yet many others grew morally uncomfortable. Why?
Over 12 years, the United States has rounded up an unknown number of innocents and held them alongside terrorists at an island prison, without evidence, charges, or trial, keeping some for years even after deeming them no threat. The U.S. tortured an unknown number of prisoners in an official torture program, then destroyed evidence of it. Americans ran a prison at Abu Ghraib where many others were tortured and abused in the most disgusting ways imaginable. The Iraq War implicates us in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents. Successive presidents set precedents such that American citizens can now be put on a secret kill list on one man's orders and killed without any due process. A 16-year-old American was killed in a drone strike with no explanation given to this day; scarcely no one in power demanded one. With the blessings of the White House, the New York Police Department has ethnically profiled and spied on innocent Muslim Americans who were deemed suspicious for no reason besides their religion.
The NYPD failed to apologize, even after that destructive surveillance program sowed anxiety and mistrust in the community and produced zero counterterrorism leads.
America's drone program has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocents and nightmarish living conditions for Yemenis and Pakistanis under regular flight paths. What's more, the U.S. doesn't apologize, explain itself, and compensate the families of the dead when it inadvertently kills innocent people with drones. Instead, we do our best to pretend that we had no role in the killing, leaving impoverished survivors to bury their own dead, to repair their own homes, and to wonder if seemingly arbitrary death from the sky will take them next.
As well, we've built a global surveillance apparatus unprecedented in human history, one so unaccountable that Americans only found out about violations of the Fourth Amendment and data collection on tens of millions of Americans because a contractor gave up his comfortable life in Hawaii and risked his freedom to tell us about it. If not for Edward Snowden, even the blatant legal violations of the NSA would still remain completely unknown to us. The United States is also violating the privacy of hundreds of millions of innocent foreigners, including leaders of close allies; intentionally undermining the security of global IT systems to facilitate spying; and doing great harm to American companies whose security we've breached.
Looking back, this shouldn't surprise us.
On 9/11, innocents of all races and religions were murdered en masse. Additional attacks seemed imminent, and it wasn't long before anthrax was sent through the mail and snipers terrorized the Capitol. The shock changed our national-security officials.
In secret memos and rushed legislation, they resolved to transgress against moral and legal norms just enough "to keep us safe," and the public started off in their corner. Of course, almost from the start they were plotting torture, spying on innocents, exploiting the terrorist attack to push an invasion of Iraq and detaining the not guilty. But the U.S. public was still sympathetic. They saw America as a target of terrorism playing the hand it was dealt in a fallen world, where innocents were hurt and killed regardless. Wasn't it better, in a way, for America to maintain its role as benevolent global hegemon? We weren't going to start a nuclear war, as North Korea or Pakistan might in our absence. Better for America to assert itself overseas than to cede the Middle East to al-Qaeda, Saddaam Hussein, and Hezbollah.
It was a self-justifying kind of illogic with conclusions that seldom followed from the premises.
Even today, national-security officials tell themselves that everything they've done has flowed naturally enough from that initial recalibration of their moral decision-making, their repudiation of a "pre-9/11 mindset," which Americans happily endorsed as the cancer of al-Qaeda filled the lungs of New Yorkers with black smoke.
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.
Yet we've done all that, and felt justified in doing so.
The trauma of 9/11 is not an excuse. That we have a history of behaving more morally than some countries, that the world is better off with an American rather than a Russian or Chinese hegemon, is not an excuse. That national-security officials are often motivated by keeping their families and yours safe is not an excuse.
The real, ongoing threat of terrorism is not an excuse.
For so many of our actions, there is no excuse. And so we should reject the moral code that has enabled us to behave inexcusably. We should abide by older laws and norms whose value are now more apparent. To tweak and repurpose a great line from Skyler White, this country needs someone to protect us from the people who are protecting this country. We need it fast. And we're the only someones around to do it.