America tortured detainees. We tortured human beings.
The world is rightly outraged. We have it coming. We call ourselves the exceptional nation, and I'm fine with that if we can live up to that claim. We should be a beacon of democracy, justice, and humanity, not criminal monstrosity. Instead, in our surrender to the terror wrought on us by evil men, we committed evil that undermined our moral authority and did more durable damage to our national interest than the loss of any buildings or lives.
In response to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on our use of torture under the George W. Bush Administration, South Dakota's Congressional delegation splits predictably. Our Republican members ignore the real moral crime and try to paint those who expose our crime as the bad guys:
Republican Sen. John Thune said while some of the findings of the report are disturbing, the "conclusions are misleading and do not represent all the facts."
"With growing national security threats from our enemies around the globe, the release of this report on a program that ended eight years ago puts our military and intelligence operatives in jeopardy today," said Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. "This seems more like a politically motivated report, rather than an honest attempt to improve our intelligence-gathering practices" [Christopher Doering, "S.D. Delegation Divided on Torture Report," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.12.09].
Yes, yes, stay afraid. Wave the flag, support the troops, pay no attention to the torturers behind the curtain.
Rep. Kristi Noem expressed concern that the details of the report could allow U.S. enemies to "to twist our intentions" and use its findings to promote aggression against America. "Congress must continue to provide thorough oversight over our intelligence activities, but the manner in which this was done puts America in danger and does our country little to no good," she said [Doering, 2014.12.09].
Differing from these cowards, Senator Tim Johnson puts the focus back where it should be, saying we made mistakes and need to admit them:
Today’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices was the right thing to do. The American people deserve to know the truth – that the CIA tortured detainees during the Bush Administration using interrogation practices contrary to our American values. We are stronger as a nation when we admit our mistakes, learn from the past, and move forward. I strongly believe that the use of torture is intolerable and inexcusable. These practices failed to make our nation safer and must not happen again [Senator Tim Johnson, press release, 2014.12.09].
Senator John McCain, who bears the scars of torture, agrees with his Democratic colleague:
[The report] is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.
I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values [Senator John McCain, floor statement, United States Senate, 2014.12.09].
Senator McCain says America's torture failed to produce useful intelligence or forward our goals in fighting terrorism. But Senator McCain says efficacy is not the main point:
...[T]orture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.
We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.
Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. This executive summary of the Committee’s report makes clear that acting without conscience isn’t necessary, it isn’t even helpful, in winning this strange and long war we’re fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed [McCain, 2014.12.09].
Senator Thune and Rep. Noem should listen to Senator McCain. The torture report is not political hackery. It is a truthful admission of America's sins, and a necessary step in re-establishing our claim that we are better than the terrorists we fight.
We tortured human beings. We committed crimes against humanity. We will likely never prosecute those crimes. But we must admit those crimes and vow never to commit them again. We must vow to be Americans — not terrorists, not tyrants, but Americans.
Related Reading: Douglas Wiken wisely notes that the CIA's use of torture could encourage overly aggressive law enforcement practices here at home.