On September 12, 2001, the day after the horrific act of terror in New York and Washington, the collective morality of the United States changed in regard to torture. Nearly seventeen years later, some people know this was a bad thing to do. And some people don’t.
I’ve been experiencing severe déjà vu watching the confirmation hearings of Gina Haspel for CIA Director, and remembering the debate about revelations of American torture of Islamic detainees following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Haspel has been acknowledged as being in a position of authority at one of the “secret rendition sites” used by the U.S. in post-attack years, and later destroying evidence of this torture at these sites. She has been “cagey” in testimony regarding her views on the use of torture then and in the future.
What we are seeing here in Congress is a very public rationalizing, and in some cases outright denial, of a collective public guilt for the “fall from grace” of an important American ideal. This story we have told ourselves for generations, that we are a “moral nation” with higher standards than most of the world when it comes to basic human decency, no longer flies.
I’ve been through this discussion before, and not in a good way. In the heat of that earlier time when some of our most extreme counter-reactions to that categorically horrible act of 9/11 terror came to light, I wrote a letter to the editor of a respected daily newspaper, and it was published. In this letter I attempted to establish that indeed, this change in collective morality did occur, citing an historical comparison with the way the country responded to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks by Japan. The gist of that letter was that, despite the huge number of lives lost in that war, the United States, at least officially, never condoned the torture of captured combatants, and that prohibition of torture included waterboarding.
To what I had thought was a measured, history-grounded position, the newspaper’s opinion page editor published a venal, personal-attack response from a defender of waterboarding. The writer never did address the accuracy of my history. Instead, he proudly glorified the American torture of Islamic combatants with a mocking attack on me and my educational institution, and he questioned my patriotism. The editorial guidelines of the newspaper itself were violated here because of the ad hominem attack, which was a clear failure by the editor at the time, who has since departed the paper. The editor later acknowledged that policy violation to me personally and expressed regret over publishing it.
My eyes were opened in that experience. It was, for me, the first inklings of “Trumpism” to come, where self-identified Christians and patriots began cheering the way for waterboarders and worse, in order to, in their view, protect “The Homeland.” In their argument, history and tradition have no meaning, whether of the country or the religion they espouse, nor does reasoned debate. Their tools are simply expressions of rage, bullying and derision. When Senator John McCain, a voice of authority in every important aspect, spoke on the issue, he was met with derision as well by favored television voices, even while on his deathbed.
But my take on that history remains firm. World War II, during which my father “island hopped” with the Army field hospitals in the Pacific and his brother died in the liberation of the Philippines, was a war that was far more costly to American lives than any war since. And it was a war that truly did endanger the very survival of “the homeland.” The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have not come close to that threat. And yet, the U.S. actually prosecuted Japanese officers for many of the same “enhanced interrogation techniques” that our own people deployed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Those are the facts.  Let the justification and rationalization begin.
We changed. It’s that simple. Some of those politicians, soldiers, agency employees and contractors involved just can’t get comfortable about confessing that shift in the collective morality of the nation, or accept responsibility for it. The Obama administration did not act against the perpetrators of aggression from the previous administration, in an apparent attempt to “put the situation behind us,” but the ghosts of that war refuse to remain dead.
In recent weeks this blog has been exploring my perspective on morality and ethics, which begins with this post. I was engaged in formal graduate study on this topic when the first Gulf War erupted in 1990. I had begun my study looking more at the curious subset of “Accounting Ethics” in light of the costly “Savings and Loan Crisis” during the Reagan years, (now long since forgotten, to our peril). In taking a broader set of “classical ethics” university classes, I met a courageous group of nuns who were deeply involved in questioning various atrocities committed by Americans in what they perceived as an immoral over-reaction to the valid moral threat initiated by Iraq’s Sadaam Hussein.
Like canaries in a coal mine, these sisters were warning of the moral blinders that our outrage can place upon us, and that our bad over-reactions, while we defend them at the time, will come back to haunt us. And they have, many times over. I wrote about this dangerous fallback to “primal morality” in a recent post.
The Archbishop in Cincinnati was none too pleased at the time that these nuns were engaged in both advanced theological study and direct social action concerning that war. The sisters reported to me that he had told them they were “getting all dressed up with no place to go,” dismissing their pursuits. These fine ladies were both prophetic and unwavering.
I am not going to parse here the meaning, or the value, or the specific techniques of torture in war. This is usually done by those who know that they are damn guilty due to their complicity or silence during that difficult period, and they are trying to assuage their guilt. “It wasn’t really torture, you know,” they might say. Then there are the people like our President who have vocally expressed the desire to bring torture back. Disgust is not a sufficient word here, and the “Christian” leaders who support him in his words are equally “guilty as sin.”
In the middle are the voices in Congress and the media just trying to “make this go away.” Hands over the ears, crying, “La, la, la, la.” Pretend the CIA director candidate never was really there or responsible.
The late theologian Walter Wink, who wrote frequently on issues of war and peace, once said that war has the tendency of making us take on the face of our enemies, and then outdo them in their evil.  I’ll let you judge if he is correct in his assertion. It is a hard one to face honestly.
But we changed. We were wrong as a collective nation to sacrifice our traditional moral rules so soon after they were horribly confronted in 2001. In Christian and Jewish circles, confession is the first step to forgiveness and atonement for our collective and individual wrongdoing. But we need the confession first in order to forgive ourselves, a confession derived voluntarily, by the way (ah, but maybe a little “guilting” is in order).
- Whelan, Luke. “These Documents Show That the US Called Waterboarding Torture during World War II.” Mother Jones, 18 Dec. 2014.
- Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, 1999.