Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture report reveals shocking trend

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture during the Bush administration revealed some shocking things last week. There are times when I'm not exactly proud of my fellow Americans, but the torture report revealed some truly depressing trends about the country in whose military I once served.

I wasn't shocked that our government under Cheney/Bush casually authorized the brutal treatment of human beings in our custody. We've known George Bush and his cohorts were irresponsible hooligans since the moment they crossed the border into Iraq. That the U.S. Attorney General was instructed to write a pseudo defense of the practice seems, in retrospect, to be one of the less offensive examples of the complete disregard the Bushies had for American rule of law.

No, what as truly shocking is not the conduct of not-so-rogue CIA agents; it was the reaction of the average American to the report.

A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2011 showed that Americans have swung from being against torture several years ago to being much more accepting of it. A year ago an Associated Press poll showed the same thing. And in the wake of the release of the committee’s report last week I find that I’m surrounded by co-workers, friends, and family members who are at best ambivalent about torture and at worst downright supportive.

This reaction is not just an alarming trend, it's evidence of a sea change in America's view of itself. Apparently, a majority of Americans see themselves as no better than anyone else in the world. It puts the lie to the concept of American Exceptionalism. That’s the idea that, among nations, and especially among democratic nations, America is exceptional because if its unique mixture of commerce, republican democracy, and moral idealism. Alexis de Tocqueville first called the United States "exceptional" in the mid 19th century, noting that Americans were able to build a wealthy, powerful nation "without relapsing into barbarism."

Alas, it seems that America is no longer the nation de Tocqueville so admired. If a majority of us approve of the use of torture against suspected enemies, we have relapsed into barbarism and, in doing so, we have abdicated our exceptionalism.

We are, in fact, little better than the hated ISIS monster who stands over his kneeling victim and hacks off the head while spouting anti-American vitriol. We join the likes of Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, China, and the 80 percent of the rest of the world where torture is common. That’s hardly the profile of an “exceptional” country.

I understand that America's genesis, growth, and maturity were not without grievous departures from the barbarism that was once considered necessary for the building of a civilization. The genocide of native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, and the heartless exploitation of millions of immigrants to build U.S. industry are moral burdens we Americans must bear forever. We are convicted by the world, even as we ignore the crimes ourselves.

There was a time when we might have transcended our bloody, brutal beginnings. I grew up in the shadow of World War II, a conflict that seemed to prove what an exceptional nation America once was. We sacrificed the best we had to secure the safety and freedom of friends unable to fend off the monstrous armies that sought to subjugate them. In my childhood I heard dozens of stories about GIs who were tortured in prison camps, mostly in the Pacific. Movies were made about the horrors visited upon the defeated American soldiers (in fact, a new motion picture due out this Christmas season, "Unbroken," chronicles just such a horror, and the hero's efforts to overcome it.) The moral of such stories was always the same – Americans are better than the Japanese because we never tortured our prisoners. Of course, the racist subtext of Caucasian superiority over the Asian barbarian was lost on me at the time but would become clearer in time.

Nonetheless, we were better than "them." Americans may have run amok in the aftermath of battle, and no one denied that there were abuses, including rape, as Japanese islands fell to the Americans. But, according to the common belief at the time, American soldiers were prosecuted, imprisoned, even executed, for behaving the way other armies behaved. Never mind that black soldiers were executed far more often than whites, a fact documented in 1993 by Francis Klines; we proudly compared ourselves to the Russians, who raped between 95,000 and 130,000 German girls and women during and after the fall of Berlin (Antony Beevor, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945,"(2003)). Americans didn't routinely brutalize the women of a defeated foe. Americans didn’t plunder a beaten enemy’s national treasures. And Americans never, ever, tortured prisoners of war.

In time, of course, information leaked out that, yes, American soldiers and officers sometimes betrayed American ideals by acting barbarically toward our enemies. But even thern two things set us apart from others, and still made us "exceptional": Such behavior was a grotesque departure from policy and, when discovered, was openly and freely admitted. And there was a sense of horror that Americans could have done such a thing. Adults all around me would shake their heads sadly that our own military men could have dishonored their flag and country

The community that raised me instilled in me a reverence for human dignity, a love of civil liberty and due process of law, and the fierce belief that we Americans are more civilized than the Soviets who raped Berlin, the Japanese who eviscerated Nanking, and the Nazis who plundered Europe. Now that same community produces a politician who openly advocates torturing suspects to force confessions, and adults all around me grimly nod their heads in approval.

The question now is not whether America has lost its exceptional status among nations. The question is whether we can ever earn it back. I am not hopeful.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I hope TV has it all wrong

We hear constantly of the more than 300 firefighters who were killed when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and well we should.

However …

We seem to have forgotten that there were cops in the building that collapsed, too, a couple dozen, and they weren't there to direct traffic or find a bakery or arrest the airplane hijackers. They were there to save lives, to direct civilians to safety and away from the firefighters.

We have forgotten about them because there is a down side to being a policeman: Few people think of cops as heroes, and that's a damn shame. The man who was the greatest influence on my life, the only man I ever knew to whom I could ascribe the classic attributes of hero; a man I loved uniquely and unconditionally, and whom I miss every day, was a cop. In fact, he remains my idea of what a police officer should be. And I know that, by his own high standards, he judged most men and women in blue to be deserving of his respect, and that is high praise, indeed.

So we’re straight on that, right? Cop admirer, right here.

But …

I was watching one of my favorite police procedurals on TV the other night and it just smacked me in the face that the grizzled desk sergeant, as she passed out the black bands to cover badges in memory of a fellow officer recently murdered in the line of duty, said she’d prefer the shooter didn't live to face trial. Even more jarring, the rest of the characters seemed to share that sentiment.

I don’t know if real cops feel that way, but it would be really depressing to find out they do. In movies and on TV, “cop killers” are worse than child molesters and baby murderers. The cops in the movies always talk about the killing of “one of our own,” as if that’s a special class of crime which deserves a special kind of death and a special place in Hell.

I understand that but I can’t abide it. As a journalist, I am personally aggrieved by the death of any journalist while on the job. Ironically, those who kill journalists are usually the ones for whom the reporters have the greatest sympathy. So I absolutely understand the stunning grief and rage when a friend and colleague is murdered. I've felt it. But the death of a reporter in a war zone is no worse than the death of a child or an old man or any other non-combatant.

Don’t get me wrong; So I know that when an officer is killed in the line of duty, his or her fellows should be given all of the benefit of empathy and sympathy that anyone would. But cops aren’t special, and their deaths in the line of duty are, in fact, occupational hazards. Their killers should be hunted, captured, and prosecuted exactly the same way the killer of a child, or a teacher, or a doctor, or an accountant would be.

I think the sentiment expressed on the TV show hit me particularly hard because of the attention that’s being focused on police brutality recently. I won’t say it isn’t warranted, but I can’t imagine how painful it is to every good man and woman on the job. Sadly, it only takes a handful of bad actors to sully the reputations of everyone wearing a badge. It makes it look like cops, just like the rest of us, can’t control their tempers in high-stress situations. It erodes public trust in all police officers and denies them the human empathy they should have from the rest of us when they do get hurt or killed protecting the rest of us.

I’ll be the first to admit that police work doesn't lend itself to good PR. The very nature of police work makes it abhorrent to most people. A cop can change your life with the stroke of his pen, or end it with the twitch of her finger. Even when heroic firefighters investigate arson – the only crime firemen concern themselves with – they don’t arrest the suspect, they call on cops to do that.

Police officers are accusers; they take away our liberty because it’s their job to do that to some of us. When a policeman pulls you over to warn you of a broken headlight, he is depriving you of the freedom to drive down the street in ignorant darkness. When a policeman comes to your door to ask you questions about the strange car parked down the block, your eyes are drawn irresistibly to the gun belt, to the weapon that can kill and the handcuffs that can imprison.

But to give voice to wishes that a murderer – any murderer – should be denied due process of law, to say that any suspect’s or defendant’s civil rights should be abridged, isn’t just morally wrong, it’s downright un-American. Police officers are sworn to uphold, not just the statutes that forbid murder and theft and rape, but the whole U.S. Constitution. That means protecting the civil rights of all citizens, regardless of personal feelings or the emotions of the moment.

I hope most real police officers think of that when they're on the job. I hope they truly believe that they go to work each day to serve and to protect. And I sure hope those TV shows are wrong about the cops they portray.