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How America discarded its moral compass

As I’ve watched the “torture debate” unfold over the past few weeks, and in particular as I read the highlights of the speeches by President Obama and Dick Cheney yesterday, I realized how stunted our country really is, and I realize the degree to which this is the direct result of cowardly leadership in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Here’s America in 2009:

We live in a country where most people believe that our prison system is not adequate to safely incarcerate international terrorists.

Where our law enforcement agencies are not to be trusted to compile evidence that can be used to convict terrorists.

Where our court system can’t be trusted to discern which accused terrorists are guilty and which are not.

Where our intelligence agencies are incapable of successfully interrogating detainees without resorting to medieval torture techniques.

Where the regulations that govern how enemies taken prisoner on the battlefield are to be treated are seen as out of date and useless.

Where our intelligence courts are believed to be so slow and inefficient that they cannot be allowed to supervise wiretaps.

And most importantly, that the Constitution is too restrictive to enable us to effectively fight terrorists.

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 was an opportunity for real leadership. Of course people were angry and scared — they were right to be. But a real leader would have championed our institutions and our values and prosecuted a war that was in keeping with those values. Instead the Bush administration chose to openly devalue the Constitution in many ways and to secretly ignore it in most of the others.

Not long after 9/11, Jim Henley wrote that terrorists are a threat to Americans, but that we are the only people who can destroy America. I took that to heart.

I knew from the beginning that building the facility at Guantanamo to incarcerate prisoners was an awful idea. Everybody knew why we were doing it — because its location could provide legal cover for questionable activities. Everything that has followed flowed from that. It set the precedent that the Bush administration was going to pay lip service to the letter of the law but trash the spirit of the law. That loopholes would be sought, invented, and exploited wherever possible. That everything meaningful related to the war on terror would be kept secret from the American people.

And now, nearly eight years later, people have been conditioned to believe that the things that we were taught make America great are outmoded concepts. Or perhaps more accurately, that we should still believe in those things and do our best to ignore the fact that they were abandoned long ago.

When we elected Barack Obama, I believed he would be a champion for the Constitution. He has not been. And what I worry about is that it was foolish to hope for a champion for the Constitution. Any such person faces a tidal wave of opposition from people who have accepted the devaluation of American ideals by the Bush administration and its defenders.

It’s only now that I’m really seeing the degree to which the things that I really do cherish about America have been debased. Everybody knows that the government has abandoned the values of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence when it was expedient over the years, but it’s only in recent times that we see such widespread belief that it’s not even wrong to do so.

1 Comment

  1. Keith Erick Fix

    May 24, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    I wondered at the time what the world would have done if we’d simply identified the culprit – Osama bin Laden – and asked for justice, whilst never lifting a finger. Would the rest of world bothered to do a thing, or just shrugged and gone about its business? And what would we have done if the only justice available from the rest of the world was the justice we took from them? What then would have been the right response: to do as we did – sending our military might to the far side of the world to slaughter our enemies – or to take the answer of the world to our distress as a signal to withdraw, and leave the world to rot?

    Life takes strange turns, and I’m writing this response to a childhood friend’s musings from overseas, with the imminent prospect of living at the center of everything at stake less than a year away. With that in mind, it upsets me that my representatives in government are destroying the reputation of my country just as I finally get to explore beyond its borders.

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