'The Case for Rage and Retribution'

It wasn't the CIA that created the atmosphere that allowed torture to happen.

A person falls from the World Trade Center's north tower after jumping, on September 11, 2001. (Richard Drew/AP)

On September 12, 2001, Time magazine, in a special issue devoted to the Qaeda attacks of the previous day, published a column by one of its most prominent contributors at the time, Lance Morrow. The column was headlined, "The Case for Rage and Retribution." The subtitle read: "What's needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation that doesn't leak away in a week or two."

Morrow's core argument:

Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.

I don't recall reading this essay when it first appeared, though I bought a copy of the special issue as a keepsake—a keepsake I recently discovered in my basement. I opened the magazine to the Morrow essay and was shortly appalled, though, of course, in the days following the 9/11 attacks, I remember being more than sufficiently upset, in the Morrow manner. Even today, if I concentrate my mind on images of innocent people throwing themselves from the Twin Towers, I can easily induce anger.

So I don't mean to single out Morrow for his intemperate words; he wrote at a particular, appalling moment, and he captured the fury most people felt at the time. But this fury explains why we should resist the urge to make believe that what the CIA did to some of its detainees, according to the newly released Senate report, reflects poorly on the CIA alone. Lance Morrow was wrong: A policy of focused brutality does, in fact, come easily, even to a self-conscious and self-indulgent country such as ours, if we allow the rage terrorists create in us to shape our behavior.

The lesson is obvious: The next time a group of Islamist terrorists succeeds in killing large numbers of Americans—and such an attack should be expected—it is important for those who are in positions of power (very much including the writers and commentators who shape popular thinking) to keep in mind that the goal of the United States is to neutralize the threat, and not to seek retribution for the sake of retribution.  It is a terrible idea, both morally and practically, to allow hatred to shape counterterrorism policy, but that, I think, explains in part what happened at the CIA. In an atmosphere of comprehensive rage and loathing, bad ideas rose to the surface, and found their champions.