Shortly after World War II, the well-known psychologist Carl Jung ascribed a collective guilt to Germans for the crimes of the Nazi Party, Kollektivschuld. Whether Germans realized it or not, the horrors carried out in their borders, by their leaders, and with their tacit blessing would come to bear on their national psyche. To reinforce this feeling of Kollektivschuld, the U.S. and the UK hit Germany with propaganda posters following the war, depicting images of the Holocaust and sternly reminding the German people, “These atrocities: you are to blame!”
So at what point must we, the people of the U.S., acknowledge our own Kollektivschuld for the crimes of our leaders? Few crimes in world history, let alone U.S. history, compare to the Holocaust, but there is still plenty to reckon with that we have yet to maturely confront: the genocide of American Indians, the enslavement of Africans, a system of racism and violence against blacks that continues to the present, the use of napalm in Vietnam, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, support of brutal dictators and the overthrow of democratically elected governments, the war and sanctions in Iraq that killed perhaps a million or more people – and that’s just what springs to mind off the cuff.
With this history in mind, learning the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus oversaw a system of torture should come as no surprise. Indeed, all the warning signs that the U.S. was participating in a torture program were present long before the recently released Senate Intelligence Committee’s report confirmed it. Photographs from Abu Ghraib shocked the American media in 2004, and were quickly brushed off – as violations of human rights by authority figures so often are – as isolated incidents, not indicative of official policy. Reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International revealed this to be false; not only was torture widely used in U.S. detention centers from Iraq to Guantanamo Bay, the practice continued long after the revelations came to public light.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the chief architects of foreign policy during the Bush years and a man who’s been making big plays at an imperial agenda behind the scenes for decades, appeared on Meet The Press in full-blown super villain mode to defend the use of torture. Cheney acknowledged that, despite what he and Bush claimed while in office, they’d known about the torture all along. He made no apologies for lying about it and declared that, given the opportunity, he’d “do it again in a minute.” His excuse that the U.S. was at war is the most ridiculous – not to mention ironic – one he could give; the specific purpose of the Geneva Conventions is to protect the treatment of prisoners of war.
It’s doubly ridiculous, though, because most of them can’t even really be considered prisoners of war in the classic sense. The War on Terror is nothing like a conventional war. We are “at war” with “enemies of freedom.” An “enemy of freedom” is anybody who gets in the way of total U.S. hegemony. Terror groups in the Middle East can be brutal, evil people, acting with far greater savagery than the U.S. does – as the recent massacre in Peshawar demonstrates. But the proper treatment of violent extremists like that isn’t to wage a war on the country, it’s to organize an international, coordinated police effort – when Adam Lanza terrorized Newtown, no one called for a war on Connecticut.
Terrorism is not an ideology in and of itself; it’s a means to an end. You can no sooner win a war on it than you can win a war on bullying or skateboarding. The ends being fought for by people in the Middle East are varied – many of them just want imperial meddling out of their land. Groups like ISIS, then, become uncomfortable allies for ordinary people who are tired of having U.S. and NATO bombs dropped on them. The solution Cheney won’t even consider is reducing the amount of violence in the world. He would rather stoop to the lowest level he can and treat all Middle Easterners as enemies of America. If we have to torture some innocent ones, so be it.
As openly monstrous as Cheney is, it would be naïve to assume that we’re going to learn anything from this important, teachable moment. Even if we’re feeling some Kollektivschuld now, this nation has an especially fickle memory, particularly of its own crimes. Moreover, there’s no reason to assume our national morality is better under President Obama: Bush and Cheney, with all their love and pursuit of executive power, could only dream of doing what he’s done with drones. Under President Obama, the treatment of Chelsea Manning, the American soldier accused of leaking confidential material to WikiLeaks, is in the same vicinity as Cheney’s treatment of captured Islamists.
Even treatment of prisoners in our everyday penal institutions is little better than what we offered to suspected enemy combatants. Much of it violates international law, including extended stays in solitary confinement. And the prison system is a thoroughly documented and spectacular failure, with sky-high re-incarceration rates and a brutal prison social system that turns petty offenders into hardened criminals.
Such torture does not have noble ends. It doesn’t even work in the way leaders like to pretend it does. It’s not even supposed to. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz noted in a recent article on Salon, “The important thing to stress about the use of torture is that it is unrelated to ‘getting information.’ Torture is used in counterinsurgency to terrorize a population… [it’s] a preventative measure to suppress resistance by terrifying the insurgents, breaking their will to continue.” We are torturing not to extract valuable information, which most everybody understands it doesn’t do, but to teach any and all who would oppose us a lesson. The same is true of prison inmates, whose “rehabilitation” seems to consist of instilling in them a fear of the variety of cruel ways they can be punished.
All of this is unforgivable in a nation that considers itself the world’s shining beacon of freedom and enlightenment. We like to imagine these moments as blights on an otherwise stellar record, but history shows the opposite: we have been violent, aggressive and bloody for centuries; our brutal legacy only marked by occasional gestures of goodwill. One way we can help ease some of our own Kollektivschuld, should we ever mature to the point where we feel it at all, is by bringing war crimes charges against the perpetrators. Cheney and Bush already have trouble traveling the world for fear of being indicted. Americans have to let the world and our leaders know that such monsters are unwelcome here, as well. It’s up to us, because as Cheney’s brazen talk show circuit proved, there will never be any shame or accountability otherwise.