It is always disheartening when America does not live up to the standards many of us expect and in the adoption and execution of enhanced interrogation we have failed to do that on many levels.
The primary failure is that our elected officials and the people who serve them strayed into territory where most of us instinctively know America does not belong. The failures continued though – there were failures in implementation, failures in oversight, and failures even today as our political class is failing to find a collaborative resolution to this problem that does not further harm American interests. But America, unlike some countries, is dynamic and very much a work in progress. When we stumble, and we do, it is important that we acknowledge our mistakes, make improvements, and continue moving forward.
Hot Wars are ugly terrible things. Cold wars are too. It is only the scale of the ugliness which changes. America has never been able to find morally comfortable ground in the most violent parts of either despite, at times, excelling at both. Perhaps it says something about our struggle to attain the ideal even while the forces that rage against us fully embrace the darkest parts of humanity. That is the most optimistic take on it all but it is also the one I believe. At our best, American’s have a brighter vision of the world than most others, and while we are far from perfect, we do continue to make progress. Hold that up to the world envisioned by our many of our enemies and the contrast is striking. I want it to stay that way.
That is one reason it is important to confront and rethink the practices we put in place after 9/11. Perhaps some of it can be rationalized. Much of it likely not. But either way the systematic abuse of people, even terrible people, is not a machine that we, as a nation, should put into motion. As a realist I can conjure up scenarios where almost anything is justified but I expect those cases to be the exception. When there is a bureaucracy, workforce, documentation, legal findings, and a language to support that abuse the exceptional threatens to become routine.
Some would say that water-boarding, humiliation, threats, sleep deprivation and other enhanced interrogation tactics fall far short of the brutality exhibited by our enemies. That’s true but it does not make widespread adoption of those tactics acceptable. I trust that America is in no rush to match the inhumanity of it’s enemies. Barbarism is growing and if we chose to we could match and exceed the inhumanity of our enemies with the press of a button. But we don’t do that. We take the hard way. We try to avoid unnecessary suffering even at the cost of the lives and limbs of our own. We are different. We are not them. And we should strive to remain that way even if it is the most difficult road to travel.
The release of this report, and the reaction that has followed, is intensely political and partisan. Rather than scramble to score points for their party all Americans should be looking at this and asking if it fits the their vision for their country and if it will help us tackle the growing threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Are we doing what is right and are we being effective? If not, we will eventually suffer collectively.
America is a nation that should advance the most optimistic vision for humanity. It should have a firm sense of itself and what is right. No enemy should ever be able to use fear to drive us one inch closer to systematically adopting the extremes that they embrace. We face enemies with no limits, no constraints on the terrible things they can do to advance their cause, but we can beat them without becoming them. In fact, that is the only way that we will win.