Several recent developments have called to mind the old question of whether “the ends justify the means.” I believe in this day of popular TV shows like “24,” (a show, incidentally, that I refuse to watch) this is a question that isn’t asked nearly often enough.
Yesterday, the hoopla was over the Senate’s release of their ‘investigation’ into CIA interrogation methods. I note it’s interesting that, six years into the current administration, the report just happens finally to be released on the day when Jonathan “Americans are stupid” Gruber was being grilled by a panel in the House of Representatives. If you think this was a coincidence, you’ve not been paying attention to the “dense pack” strategy of scandal releases that obscure just how low Washington has sunk. It is also the latest example of how “Blame Bush” is still this administration’s default get-out-of-jail-free card (never mind that much of what they blame him for has continued, or accelerated, under the current regime).
Suffice to say, our ‘government’ is all political theater and no substance whatsoever. Which is why unelected bureaucrats of various stripes are now the real power.
Many of those unelected decision makers reside in the intelligence community which, by its very nature, is a paradox: to serve its function requires a certain level of secrecy and anonymity. But for it to serve a free society, there must be limits and accountability. Our nation has wrestled with this since cementing the national security state apparatus in place following World War II, and over time it seems the ‘balance’ has skewed ever farther towards latitude — particularly after 9/11.
I’m not going to debate the exact content of the Senate report, because it’s compromised by partisan hype. That said, I don’t think there can be any doubt at this point that our government has engaged in behavior over the last 13 years that would have horrified earlier generations of Americans. Let’s face it: if we’re now all but publicly strip-searching Americans at TSA checkpoints, what do you THINK we’re doing to non-Americans who become “of interest?” Most of the arguments made by those who favor wide latitude in ‘interrogation’ are emotional, not rational ones. Ignoring the evidence that torture rarely yields good information, there is something visceral about the public’s desire to treat our adversaries, real and imagined, with abuse that we can rationalize. “Heck yeah, waterboard those so-and-sos,” goes the rallying cry of the “24” viewer demographic… never once questioning whether our public servants might occasionally round up the wrong people, or have bad information themselves. (To think they don’t is to ascribe a level of perfection to our government that is dangerously naive.)
The same dynamic applies to law enforcement as well–we support levels of force against others for various petty offenses that we would never want turned on us.
We’ve forgotten the teaching: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Speaking only for myself, I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of these “enhanced interrogation methods.” If I were, whether innocent or not to start with, I would forevermore be the enemy of those who applied them to me (God is still working on me about the whole ‘forgiveness’ thing in some areas…). In short, it’s tragically myopic for former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to ask whether we are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them, while running torture centers that are hardening those already disposed to hate us, and quite possibly making new enemies of those who are the victims of bad information or circumstances (not to mention their friends and families…).
The ends alone do not justify the means. The moment we accept that, we have become something far different than the ideal America portrayed in Schoolhouse Rock. An America founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” by God should not decide that some can be treated less humanely than others. One does not successfully fight barbarism by becoming barbaric, or crime by behaving in a criminal fashion. This may be the greatest challenge of the various wars-without-end (including the War on Drugs) in which we’ve found ourselves.
It is not just government falling prey to this temptation of expediency, either. Advocates across the political spectrum are trading truth and standards for whatever immediate political gain they believe can be had by cutting corners. This is how you get advocacy theater masquerading as journalism, as with the recent Rolling Stone piece about the University of Virginia, or the ridiculously unfounded claims in a biography that are excused because she’s been annointed the “voice of her generation.” Even as the details of the original story unravel, there is a chorus attacking those looking into it, as though somehow certain allegations are automatically above reproach. Worse, some actually take the position that details don’t matter — that the ‘central narrative’ is true simply because it has been asserted. This reminds me of the infamous “fake but accurate” summary retort when it was discovered Dan Rather’s hit piece on then-President George W. Bush’s former service in the National Guard turned out to be based on a falsified memorandum. Whatever happened to admitting you’re wrong, and seeking to do better next time?
This is not just a problem on “the left.” The behavior may or may not be more prevalent there, but as partisanship has increased, both sides have become more likely to take the lower road to advantage. Politics are now viewed as a war for power that has become far too concentrated, and the old saying is that truth is the first casualty of war. It should be clear we no longer live in a culture that values dispasionate objectivity, truth, or compliance with a standard (such as the Constitution, for instance) that is larger than the whims and passions of the moment. And we wonder why the nation is falling apart at the seams?
To those in the trenches: remember that if you choose to fight fire with fire, you’re mostly doubling your chances of getting burned. It’s easy to be emotional and respond from your gut. Be better than that.