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Who We Are
George W. Bush returned from a brief but difficult November learning foray in Latin America: "Wow, Brazil is big." Meanwhile, U.S. citizens grew impatient with his performance. CBS polls rated him at 35% approval in early November. Even his supporters acknowledge that Bush’s policies have created enormous ill will throughout the world. More ethically worrisome, cried his critics, those policies don’t represent who we really are.
Most Americans, for example, abhor torture. So, on November 7, Bush flatly declared: "We don’t torture"–just as front page stories appeared with details of how the Pentagon charged five U.S members of an elite Army unit with kicking and punching detainees in Iraq.
Few Washington insiders expressed shock over Bush’s not having heard of the massive evidence compiled by The Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International and the Red Cross about routine U.S. military and CIA torture of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Nor did he seem upset over reports of secret prisons set up by the CIA in other countries in which methods that the United States and most other nations had agreed by Treaty to never practice. The CIA had stashed prisoners in a series of secret, "black-site" prisons around the world, where U.S. officials "punished" them in ways prohibited by the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (Washington Post 11/2/05)
CIA interrogators abroad used "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," banned by both the U.N. and by U.S. military law, such as "waterboarding," making a prisoner believe he or she is drowning (WP11/2/05).
The Post also claimed that "a small circle" of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials "approved this policy" and tried to affirm that "Congress may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield."
On November 7, Bush said he didn’t want the enemy to know what might happen to them. "There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. And so, you bet we will aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law." (CNN)
Bush dodged military service and Cheney had "better things to do" than risk his life in Vietnam. Senator John McCain, on the other hand, who experienced torture, led the fight to ban it.
"Subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop," McCain said. "Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy. … And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas because inevitably these abuses become public."
On October 7, 89 other Senators joined McCain in condemning torture, nine voted for it. Radio bigmouth Rush Limbaugh said the torturers were just "having a good time," getting "emotional release." In his May 4, 2004 show, a caller commented to Rush: "It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men."
LIMBAUGH: Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?
One day before, Limbaugh called the women soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners "babes." Why, the published photos of this alleged mistreatment looked like something "you’d see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage."
The outspoken radio host even satirized the tortures scandal as something you’d "get an NEA grant for. something that you can see on stage at Lincoln Center.maybe on Sex in the City — the movie. I mean."
This is not who we are? Was the 19th Century torture and massacre of Indians just a bit of venting by frustrated U.S. troops? Did the murder and torture of Filipinos between 1892 and 1932 represent no more than a fraternity hazing party?
Why, journalists should have asked, did Bush want to exempt the CIA from the torture ban? To claim he didn’t want enemy prisoners to know what might happen to them appears contradictory to his public statement: "we don’t torture." "They," Bush declared, "use violence and torture." We’re free and democratic.
In June in Istanbul, I heard a group of students challenge a U.S. academic to explain how democratic people could elect Bush. "Bush doesn’t really represent the American people," the American academic replied. The Turkish students pressed him about the Iraqi invasion for oil and demanded to know how Americans could have possibly voted for "the butcher of Baghdad."
"That’s not who we are," he assured them.
It’s not? Decent people have repeated that line to distance themselves from atrocious crimes since the 17th Century. Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe insisted that slavery and the massacre of Indians did not define us. After reports that the U.S. firebombed German and Japanese cities and dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, many citizens said: That’s not who we are.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson went to Nuremberg to try to ban future wars. "We must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of war, for out position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy." (Aug 12, 1945)
Other legal scholars drafted the UN Charter to maintain peace and helped revise President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (speech and expression, religion; freedom from fear and want) into the UN Covenants on Human Rights.
Meanwhile, other U.S. officials carried out nuclear weapons tests for use in future wars and helped circumvent the actual Senate ratification of the covenants.
Law vies with lawlessness. The Bush Administration tried to get legal UN cover for its invasion of Iraq before breaking both international codes and Justice Jackson’s denunciation of aggressive war. Then he painted a rhetorical veneer of democracy over his naked aggression.
In late September, to show the Middle Easterner who we really are, Bush dispatched Karen Hughes, to promote the real U.S. image in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Hughes found it tough to sell democracy and human rights as reports surfaced of systematic, routine U.S. torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The armed forces tried and convicted more than 200 bottom level personnel. Not a single general or civilian official, including those who authorized torture has faced trial.
As Karen Hughes "sold" Bush’s America, alternate salespeople on Al Jazeera highlighted the U.S.’ rising deficit and towering debt and featured stories on how poor blacks continue to get the short end of every government stick.
Americans believe they live in a model of freedom, opportunity and prosperity not available in older cultures. The 37 million living under the poverty line shocked them. As do the three-plus million millionaires.
The typical white family has $80,000 in assets; the average black family about $6,000. Some 46 million can’t afford health insurance, 18,000 of them will die prematurely because of it.
The U.S. ranks 43rd in world infant mortality ratings. Beijing babies have far greater chances of reaching their first birthdays those born in Washington. The survivors face rotten schools. Reading and math tests for 15-year-olds placed the U.S. 24th out of 29 rich nations.
Meanwhile, 18 corporate executives went to prison for corporate accounting fraud and looting. Bush’s Enron pals will also soon face trial for practicing their "greed-is-good" culture.
The war costs $6 billion a month. In five years the conflict will have cost each American family $11,300. Bush will cut programs for the poor to pay for the war, but he will not reverse his tax cuts.
Throughout U.S. history, truly pious and sensible down-home Americans have shared church space with zealous nuts and bigots. Cotton Mather, the Puritan witch hunter and Roger Williams who pleaded for religious freedom in the 17th Century have as their warped descendent Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who gloat over having one of their own kind running the country. On the democracy and freedom side, William Sloan Coffin and the Berrigan brothers decry imperial aggression and suppression of liberties.
Threads of racism and imperial aggression characterize U.S. growth and expansion from 13 colonies to the world’s greatest power. So does democracy. This inextricably interwoven love of freedom developed hand in glove with racism and imperialism.
Who are we? Racists, imperialists and democrats. The struggle now, as in the past, pits those who want the democracy element to prevail and bury the evil that has emanated for the other two threads of our history.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute fr Policy Studies.