In America’s most recent issue, the editors write, “In the midst of uncertain times, it is all too easy to cry ‘each to his own town’ and then settle into our own ways, to hole up in our own corners of the church or society.” There is an alternative to this temptation: “We must not allow differences around faith, race, nationality or income to keep us from truly seeing one another as neighbors, as children of God.”
It’s been a difficult year for transcending borders. The midterm elections featured appeals to xenophobia, plus campaign-commercial inducements to panic about disease and terrorism coming into the United States. Climate change, which doesn’t recognize national borders, just didn’t have the patriotic pizzazz to warrant comparable attention.
The elections themselves reinforced sectionalism in America, prompting embittered Democrats to debate whether to make any effort at all at winning votes in the Deep South. (Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast: “Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise.”) Racial tension, smoldering after several high-profile killings of unarmed black men, is exacerbated by municipal borders that enable housing segregation. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani is among those who seem to regard black America as an apartheid-like nation within in a nation, snapping to a black academic during a TV debate, “White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 percent of the time.”
So former Vice President Dick Cheney’s appalling defense of torture as a way to keep America safe was a depressingly suitable way to wind down the political season. On Sunday, Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press,” not to answer questions but to insist that the United States has nothing to learn from last week’s Senate report criticizing the CIA’s use of what Cheney calls “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These techniques, which included waterboarding and sexual assault in the guise of “rectal feeding,” repulsed some CIA employees and were of dubious value.
Asked repeatedly by host Chuck Todd for a definition of torture, Cheney snarked, “It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” And he batted away questions about detainees who were found to be innocent, including one who was apprehended in a case of mistaken identity and froze to death in CIA custody. “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent,” Cheney said. “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”
Cheney’s “objective,” as Andrew Sullivan writes, seems to be “partly an amateur thug’s idea of how you get intelligence, and partly simply a means of revenge. Yes: revenge. This was a torture program set up in order to vent rage and inflict revenge.”
In his lack of concern with the torture of innocent civilians, Cheney essentially is saying, “They may not be terrorists, but they’re Muslim, and that’s good enough for me.”
This is American exceptionalism at its worst. On “Meet the Press,” Todd asked, “If an American citizen is waterboarded by ISIS, are we going to try to prosecute for war crimes?” Cheney ducked the question with glibness (“He’s not likely to be waterboarded, he’s likely to have his head cut off.”), but there’s no doubt that members of Congress would howl for retribution if American citizens were subject to the same treatment abroad.
Even some who welcomed the Senate report had trouble seeing past American borders. Vice President Joe Biden said at an event encouraging women in politics, “Think about it, name me another country that’s prepared to stand and say, ‘This was a mistake, we should not have done what we’ve done and we will not do it again.’” Paul Waldman writes in disbelief, “Name him another country that would say it made a mistake! Just try, ’cause I’ll bet you can’t!” Waldman points out that many nations have been able to own up to bad behavior—including South Africa, whose Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped transition the country from apartheid to democracy.
Retreating to our own corners, even for the purposes of self-congratulation, is an indulgence that we can’t long afford if we’re serious about respecting human lives. We can hope that 2015 brings more border crossings.