We Are All Guilty


By Joe Campbell
May 19th, 2009


 
We are all guilty.

Because we live in a democracy.
Because we did not ask enough questions.
Because we did not stand forthrightly for American values.
Because we were afraid.

As figure after figure from the Bush administration has pleaded 9/11 when confronted by the facts of their administration’s wholesale and preemptive surrender of American values – as they instituted programs of lawless imprisonment, torture, illegal spying, and a misbegotten war justified under a profoundly un-American theory of the Presidency  – as Americans see how profoundly our nation went off course in the years after September 11th and are justifiably outraged – with all this, I honestly cannot say that I would have seen then as clearly as I see now what a betrayal, what a cowardly decision it was, to abandon our way of life and our Rule of Law. I am not sure I would have the moral clarity, the strategic vision to say, “It is not about them. It is about us [pdf.]”1 To declare that “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America.”

I’d like to think I would have seen what was going on with clarity – but I know as the fear of terrorism was fresh within me, and the anger – I know I did not ask enough questions. I felt safer knowing those in power would do everything possible to keep America safe.

But the fact that I realize my own sinful nature – imperfect, flawed – does not absolve those men and women who instituted these policies – of cruelty, torture, of an executive held above the law. If it is clearly found that any individual broke the law, they should be brought to justice.

I am also aware of the ancient ritual of scapegoating – as a society which fears its own sins places the blame for their collective miseries and flaws upon an animal or person. Whether one likes it or not, it is also certain that most Americans would have condoned torture among other transgressions in those years after September 11 – without a cultural memory of what the cost would be. The men and women of the Bush administration were acting on our behalf – with our implicit consent – when they committed these war crimes, these unconstitutional acts.

This is why I believe it would only be marginally more just to punish John Yoo than Charles Graner. Both men are guilty – but punishing them does not absolve the larger community or resolve our societal dilemma.

What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism. The biggest mistake Bush ever made was to fight a War on Terror on the “Dark Side.” In doing so, we chose to fight on the terrain most familiar to our opponents. And by unilaterally choosing to engage in a secret war without consulting with or even informing the American people on many issues – and even lying to them about what was being done – “We do not torture.” “We do not wiretap without a warrant.” – he undermined the very democracy he wanted to protect.

Armed with a theory of a unitary executive, he chose to protect our liberal democracy by acting as a benevolent (but elected) tyrant (on issues of national security) – eschewing all the advantages a democratic system, in which consent is freely given by people fully informed, in favor of the cheap, short-term advantages of a tyrant acting in secret asking people to trust his actions are to their benefit.

Rather than discussing what freedoms needed to be given up, whether our nation should give up it’s historical aversion to torture, what price we were willing to pay as a society in order to keep our way of life – he chose the path with the least resistance in the immediate term. George W. Bush had tragically learned the wrong lesson from September 11.

Yet even as he acted in secret – if we truly are a democracy – we are still responsible. We should have known. Maybe neither you nor I could have done anything – but together, we had the responsibility to. And if we’re honest, in the time after September 11, we may have even made the same flawed, awful decisions that that overmatched man did.

What we need today is to engage in that discussion that George W. Bush did not deign to – about whether American values are still relevant in a world threatened by terrorism. And we need to reach a consensus before we are attacked again. For if we do not, we will be less prepared to protect our way of life in the aftermath than we were on that Tuesday morning.

This is why we need a truth commission – charged with finding out who ordered what, who knew what when, what worked, what didn’t. We need a consensus, if our way of life is to survive.

  1. This quote is not exactly what McCain said. He said, “But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are” – but my version is snappier. []

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