What does torture say about America?

The Senate report recently released on enhanced interrogation techniques is the subject of considerable controversy.

I was originally against releasing this report. It documents actions carried out against terrorist detainees by the United States during the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

I also continue to be against any prosecution of those responsible for these actions, which many see as torture. My reasoning is somewhat akin to that which prompted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Now that the report is out, what does it tell us? America made mistakes and did things that were wrong. Our history is replete with such examples; for instance, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

We seldom acknowledge such failure of American ideals, but they are part of our history.

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Despite these failures, we continue to put forward a high ideal and hold ourselves above other cultures that do bad things. Those who say we haven't done anything that hasn't also been done by others miss the point. During the Second World War, we were often confronted with atrocities committed by our enemies, but we would always insist that the United States holds itself to a higher standard regardless of what others may do.

Well, the Senate report clearly shows that in this instance, we didn't hold ourselves to that higher standard. Some officials insist that conditions warranted the behavior because of 9/11. Yet American idealism has a different expectation. Regardless of circumstances, Americans will not participate in certain behaviors, especially torture. When one also considers, as the Senate report indicates, that the interrogations did not yield useful information, the use of these techniques is indefensible.

So is there anything positive in this tawdry affair? I think there is. The Senate report forced us to air our dirty laundry. It made us admit that we are not always as great as we like to think we are -- and herein, perhaps, is the core of what makes us great. I don't see any other countries rushing to admit their wrongdoing or complicity in the actions we took. It is almost certain, however, that several other nations participated in this behavior with us.

The ideal remains strong precisely because we have been able, however reluctantly, to acknowledge our inability to live up to it. Now we must reinforce that ideal and do everything possible to ensure that we are more faithful to it in the future. I still don't believe prosecutions are the answer, but we need to hear all authorities denounce the behavior, indicate regret, and express determination to refuse to allow such behavior in the future. Like Sen. John McCain, we need to hear the president, Congress, the Pentagon, the military, and the CIA decry such behavior and declare a commitment to foster and preserve the ideals that have made us a great nation.

We have proclaimed ourselves to be committed to a higher standard. We have failed in that commitment. We have now acknowledged that failure in the light of day. We must therefore recommit to these ideals and deter and even prosecute any who henceforth would try to undermine those things which can and should make us proud to be Americans.


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