how war becomes us

How the war becomes us

What are we sacrificing in the war on terror?

ABU GHRAIB, BAGRAM AIR BASE, AND AN UNSPEAKABLE-HELLHOLE-TO-BE-NAMED-LATER in an FBI, Amnesty International, or Red Cross report; ghost detainees, child detainees; torture in Iraq, torture in Afghanistan, torture in Cuba; criminal probes into more than 30 deaths of detainees while in U.S. custody; an unknown number transferred into the hands of torture-friendly regimes in secret exchanges; and throughout it all a president and Pentagon that seem incapable of admitting error even as the evidence of gross error piles around them. In our war to save America from terror, how much of ourselves are we unconditionally surrendering to the enemy?

The unpleasantness emanating out of “Gitmo,” as the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility in Cuba is known, has launched a by-now familiar pattern of muddle and denial. While the White House attempts to shift focus to bad journalism at Newsweek, former President Jimmy Carter calls for Gitmo’s immediate shutdown and administration bulldogs like the inexcusably unrepentant Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney defend what had become indefensible long ago, denying in the face of all evidence to the contrary that anything morally, politically, or strategically wrong was taking place on those unwelcoming Cuban shores.

What should be clear now to all but the most archdenialists is that while the abuses at Abu Ghraib were abhorrent, immoral, un-American—and astonishingly counterproductive to the alleged aims of the war on terror—they were not anomalies. While a few small-fry have been hung out to dry in military court-martials and ongoing homicide investigations, the abuses within Iraq, Afghanistan, and now coming to light from within Cuba are all part of a pattern of behavior set up by detention and interrogation protocols winked at if not endorsed outright by official military policy or government findings.

Cheney/Rumsfeld excuse these lapses with helpful reminders that these are “bad guys” and that prisoners are often treated much worse in other countries—a position not likely to earn a passing grade even in Ethics 101. Yes, gentlemen, some detainees no doubt are bad guys, just as some certainly may be guilty of absolutely nothing except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But their “badness” in degree or kind does not excuse in degree or kind any “badness” of our own or conducted in our name.

Similarly, how other nations mistreat their prisoners is completely irrelevant to the ethical posture the United States should adopt in the war on terror. The point we presume to make in the face of Islamic fascism is that America represents a system grounded in the rule of law and respectful of the dignity of each person, a system better than others, worthy of emulation, not one that’s merely “not as bad” as the brutality and inhumanity experienced in other nations.

There are many good, practical arguments that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of intelligence-gathering by torture, the unwarranted strategic and geopolitical risks generated by a policy of indifference and inhumanity, and the proposition that every indignity and cruelty invites another in its turn. But the core of a civic resistance to an unwritten but apparently coordinated policy of clinical violence has got to be a moral one—that it is simply, profoundly wrong. We do not seek to defeat one barbarism by supplanting it with another.

Catholics believe that no good results can be achieved from methods that are poisonous at the root. French novelist George Bernanos wrote: “The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.” The church in recent decades, to its heartbreak, has endured more than its share of martyrs because of state-sponsored violence. Surely it can speak with authority on this matter now. Surely it is required to do so.

Surely we can all say in the name of the Nazarene—a victim of political violence, tortured, beaten, and executed—enough is enough. The people of the United States without reservation or qualification condemn the use of torture in any form, toward whatever end. What we risk losing now is more than the war on terror.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the August 2005 (Volume 70, Number 8; page 29) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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