Friday, December 12, 2014

Tortured logic - America’s contradictory responses to crime

In response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release earlier this week of a report on CIA torture, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, had this to say: “The commander in chief concluded that the use of the techniques that are described in this report significantly undermines the moral authority of the United States of America.”

Ironically, the release of the report showed the United States at its best. Only societies that have confidence in their democratic values will willingly cast a harsh light on their own worst actions. Numerous American authors have published widely-read books in recent years on the abuses of their government after the September 11, 2001, attacks — notably Dana Priest with William Arkin, Jane Mayer and Jeremy Scahill. Relatively few countries in the world are as good at self-criticism.

But Americans are also prone to navel-gazing. Whenever they contemplate the world, they tend to focus on America. David Ignatius, hardly a man known for navel-gazing, or hyperbole, yet had this to say about the Senate report: “There simply is no way for a democracy to get past a trauma like the interrogation issue without an honest public accounting. It’s a strange healing process, ripping off the scab, exposing our wounds; perhaps it’s like the self-flagellation of the early saints.”

“Moral authority”? The “early saints”? America’s myriad qualities notwithstanding, it is difficult to read such phrases without groaning. It is all the more difficult in light of the broad American refusal to help end the human tragedy in Syria. The daily catalogue of monstrosities there that the Obama administration has disregarded makes American crimes during the “war on terror” seem almost tame by comparison.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno was once misquoted as saying that it was “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Well, after Syria it is simply impossible to listen to American self-righteousness. This is particularly true during the week when the world commemorates Human Rights Day.

The question of American responsibility for the war in Syria is a matter of violent disagreement. Most Americans believe that Syria is such a mess that the United States can do almost nothing to alleviate the suffering there. Obama himself infamously referred to Syria as “somebody else’s civil war.”

Civil wars are usually “somebody else’s,” but that hasn’t prevented the United States from intervening politically, or even militarily, to end conflicts around the world, from Bosnia to Somalia, and from Haiti to Lebanon. Some of these experiences were unhappy enough to dissuade Americans from repeating them. However, to this day there is also a parallel American sense of shame for failing to stop mass murder overseas. This feeling was notably expressed by Bill Clinton in a speech in Rwanda, recognizing America’s partial responsibility for having done nothing to end the 1994 genocide there.

Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 2002 entitled A Problem From Hell in which she documented American inaction in the face of 20th-century genocides. The book was passionate and angry; an effort to explain why “time and again, decent men and women chose to look away” when faced with genocide.

Today, Power is an important member of an administration that has chosen to look away from the crimes in Syria. She’s no doubt a decent woman, and on various occasions has made known her discomfort with the administration’s policy. But she has not chosen to resign, and until now no American official has done so over Syria, with the exception of Amb. Robert Ford.

Syria may not be facing genocide, but it is proving to be one of the gravest moral tests this century. Some 200, 000 people are estimated to have been killed; war crimes and crimes against humanity are daily occurrences; there is a great deal of documentary evidence to impart responsibility, not least for the murder of some 11, 000 people under torture in regime prisons; and 3.2 million Syrians are refugees in the countries neighboring Syria, while another 7.6 million have been internally displaced, according to the UN Population Fund.

In other words, with numbers of such magnitude genocide becomes merely a semantic distinction. Particularly disturbing is that the United States is already involved in Syria, leading a bombing campaign against ISIS. Presumably, Washington went back on its refusal to intervene in Syria because of the viciousness of ISIS. And yet Washington still refuses to do anything about the greater viciousness of the Syrian regime. The logic is difficult to comprehend, but there you have it.

So, congratulations to America for having the courage to peel back the covering over its own crimes. But it should spare us the bits about moral authority and the early saints. One must bear a responsibility for crimes that he or she has the ability to stop but, instead, does nothing to prevent.

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