Looking at America
New York Times editorial, December
There are too many moments these days
when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them,
as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the
most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture
of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying
videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see
the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt
these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule
of law and human decency.
It was not the first time in recent years
we've felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement,
not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard
practice since Sept. 11, 2001.
The country and much of the world was
rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred
and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse
for how President Bush and his advisers panicked - how they forgot
that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and
American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans
or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.
Out of panic and ideology, President Bush
squandered America's position of moral and political leadership,
swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America's
global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that
have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging
times. These policies have fed the world's anger and alienation
and have not made any of us safer.
In the years since 9/11, we have seen
American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder
prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but
their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen
mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution.
We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution,
turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence
agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting
international e-mail messages without a warrant.
We have read accounts of how the government's
top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and
Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions
- and both American and international law - to hold anyone the
president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.
Those same lawyers then twisted other
laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence
agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional
oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and
then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn't go just a bit
too far and actually kill them.
The White House used the fear of terrorism
and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that
gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed
to respond to the threat - and at the same time fulfilled the
imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined
to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could.
Hundreds of men, swept up on the battlefields
of Afghanistan and Iraq, were thrown into a prison in Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, so that the White House could claim they were beyond
the reach of American laws. Prisoners are held there with no hope
of real justice, only the chance to face a kangaroo court where
evidence and the names of their accusers are kept secret, and
where they are not permitted to talk about the abuse they have
suffered at the hands of American jailers.
In other foreign lands, the C.I.A. set
up secret jails where "high-value detainees" were subjected
to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These
crimes were videotaped, so that "experts" could watch
them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation
with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know.
The C.I.A. contracted out its inhumanity
to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners
- some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports
- to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was
clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology
or hope of redress.
These are not the only shocking abuses
of President Bush's two terms in office, made in the name of fighting
terrorism. There is much more - so much that the next president
will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that
have been done and then righting them.
We can only hope that this time, unlike
2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome
powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle
and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror
as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United
States of America.