There have been a lot of stupid, at times downright dangerous things said about the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report,” but perhaps none more dangerous than the oft-repeated mantra that “torture is not who we are.” That’s a pretty high bar, I know, because there are people arguing that we should torture because it works, because it’s not really torture, and because our enemies torture even worse, and there are people saying we should not look backwards at the torture we did, and just keep quiet about it because America is awesome. These are all stupid, at times dangerous things to say, for reasons which have been amply explained in these pages.
But the idea that “torture is not who we are” rises above all because right now, it is all that stands between us and the next time we torture people. There are not likely to be any prosecutions for the deeds described in the report, and apparently no law clear or strong enough to prevent it, so aside from President Obama’s executive order banning these practices, there is nothing to dissuade future President Cruz from reinstating the program, other than the will of the people. Maybe.
But the will of the people, when it comes to torture, is frighteningly malleable. For example, in 2009, 58% of Americans agreed with then-President-Elect Obama that the U.S. should not torture, while 40% wouldn’t rule it out. On its own, that’s a lot of people willing to torture. Clearly, torture is who a bunch of us are.
A lot of it depends on how you ask the question. In 2012, 63% of Americans considered torture “justified” to some degree, while only 25% said it was “never justified,” and in 2013, 72% found some jusitification for torture. The number of Americans who think torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified (as opposed to “rarely ” or “never”) has consistently hovered around 50%. It is entirely fair to say that torture, to some degree, is who most of us are.
Here’s a question that I haven’t seen polled, though: Would you be mad if Osama bin Laden had been tortured, or, for modern purposes, this guy? There’s no way to know for sure, but I’m betting that results would come back like an Ed Show poll. Let me go on to say that not only would I not be mad if Jihadi John got tortured, it would make my fucking day. Torture is who I am. When I hear Joe Walsh talk about the gulf between our enemies’ actions and our own, it resonates a little, because I can imagine few agonies greater than those we witnessed on 9/11. They are unthinkable, and when I hear about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed getting waterboarded, it takes a long time to get past the words “Fuck. That. Guy.” In my heart and soul, I wish we’d done worse. And I believe it would be justified.
But I also agree with Obama that the U.S. government should not torture, that it should be illegal. There are a host of lesser reasons for this belief, any of which can be overcome by passion or circumstance, but the bottom line is that it’s wrong, and it violates the sacred ideals that hold our country together.
This is why we are not a pure democracy, and why we don’t invest of our power even in leaders we love and trust. America is greater than the people who live in it, or the leaders it elects, or even the men who founded it. Not just an ingeniously constructed contraption that keeps us from veering too wildly from our course, America is also a spirit that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and greater than the all-too-human “We, the people” who live in it, who govern it.
America must always be better than we are, but unfortunately we are not good enough to keep this from happening again.