Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not in our stars, but in ourselves

President Obama's handling of the issue of American torture has managed to offend and/or frustrate those to his Left and those to his Right. I'm thinking that might be some indication of an appropriate balance. He's gone to the CIA headquarters building itself to point out that he won't use the past practices as a premise for prosecuting operatives at the foot soldier level —the very people the now famous torture memos were directed at, as these were the people most often questioning and challenging the legal integrity of their orders in the first place. He has left the door open to investigating the more senior level decisions that set American torture practices in motion, even while offering that he would rather look forward than look back.

Still we are being asked to confront the facts. The memos have been released and soon the Pentagon will be releasing images (at the behest of the courts through an ACLU suit, not the administration's actions).

What good can come of this? —some might very reasonably ask.

I can't help but be reminded of another era in our history, the days of "The Red Scare" —McCarthyism, HUAC, The Cold War in its deepest shivering. As is the tendency with histories in general, that era has come to be something of a clearer and clearer morality lesson over time. Most all of us have come to identify with that guy who asked— "at long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"

But at the time, things weren't nearly so black and white as the television —at that time, like this one, there were gray shadings of meaning. We were a nation gripped by fear —and there was very real reason for that fear. We did indeed confront an ideological and military enemy that openly spoke of one day burying us, or at least our way of life. As a country we would come to recognize the fear as another enemy itself (perhaps our most dangerous one). We would come to put aside some of the hysteria. But it took some reminding from courageous citizens for us to do so.

I borrow the title of this piece from another famous borrowing, from CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow's use of the line from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' Murrow had chosen to confront McCarthy—when the 'Red Scare' hysteria was at its worst— from the broadcast newsroom, with an exposé on the senator's troubling and destructive methods. Few others in the media or government were willing to do so just then. Murrow concluded one pivotal broadcast with the Cassius line to Brutus about "our faults" being “not in our stars but in ourselves.”

More than McCarthy himself, what Murrow was really confronting was the political climate —namely that fear— McCarthy was so able to exploit.

That climate change didn't come with one dramatic confrontation. Yes, McCarthy was finally censured and some of his more egregious abuses were redressed, but we didn't turn away from the fear itself over night. And we didn’t turn in lockstep unison.

McCarthy fell from favor, but the more important change in thinking didn’t come with that. It was only over time we truly came to examine and learn from the mistakes —our mistakes.

That's why I am thinking Obama might be just about right in disappointing both sides on this current issue of American torture, in opening us up to some uncomfortable examination, but showing some deference in leading the charge of righteous indignation (and another kind of witch hunt). We might actually rebuild more with a calm and deliberate approach to the truth about Bush administration practices, and more importantly to the truth about ourselves.

Some worry we may have lost our innocence about torture in the last few years. I'm not sure that's right; and I am not sure that it matters. Innocence is something you lose and can never regain. Integrity is another matter. Even when integrity is lost or damaged you can never leave aside responsibility for it. President Obama has been taken to task by some for having referred to the Bush practices as "mistakes" rather than crimes. But I think I understand the thinking—and yes the leadership— involved in his careful language. "Crimes" are in the nature of accusation and we can separate ourselves from them with the use of the term. Mistakes we examine together.

And hopefully we learn.

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