“This is not America.” Those words were President George W Bush’s attempt to explain the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison on the Arabic-language network Alhurra in 2004. He spoke the words as if they were an empirical matter, but a cognitive dissonance could be sensed through them.
If the men and women who tortured and abused and murdered at Abu Ghraib did not represent America, what did they represent? They wore the uniforms of the United States military. They were under the command of the American military. In the grotesque, grinning photographs they clearly seemed to believe that what they were doing was routine and approved.
And we now know from the official record that Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, had personally authorised the use of unmuzzled dogs to terrify detainees long before Abu Ghraib occurred, exactly as we saw in those photos. Does the secretary of defence not represent America?
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Almost two years after the torture story broke Congress finally roused itself and passed an amendment to a defence appropriations bill by John McCain that forbade the use of any “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of detainees by any American official anywhere in the world. It was passed by veto-proof margins and Bush signed it. But he appended a ‘signing statement’ insisting that, as commander-in-chief, he retained the right to order torture if he saw fit.
And so on May 18 the nominee for CIA director, Michael Hayden, was asked directly by Senator Dianne Feinstein whether he regarded ‘waterboarding’ as a legitimate interrogation technique. Hayden replied: “Let me defer that to closed session, and I would be happy to discuss it in some detail.”
Huh? Why a closed session? Isn’t the law crystal clear? Isn’t strapping a person to a board, tilting him so that his head is below his feet, and pouring water through a cloth into his mouth to simulate drowning a form of “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment? And isn’t that illegal? In America? Or is that not America either?
I ask these questions because so few in power in Washington want to go there. When I have brought up the question of these atrocities in front of senators and senior administration officials in private, I have noticed something. Their eyes flicker down or away. Some refuse to discuss the matter, as if it is too much to contemplate that the US has become a country that detains people without trial or due process, and reserves the right to torture them.
Or they tell me that however grotesque the charges Bush would never approve of them. It’s always someone else’s responsibility. “This is not who American servicemen are,” Richard Armitage, the then deputy secretary of state, insisted after Abu Ghraib. Or in the words of the secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with Al Arabiya: “Americans do not do this to other people.”
I know what these people are saying or trying to say. The vast majority of American soldiers are decent, brave, honourable professionals. The America I love and the Americans I know are among the most admirable and open-hearted people on the planet.
But this much must also be said: the words of Bush and Rice and Armitage are still untruths. That much we know. And last week, we had to absorb another dark truth: that in a town called Haditha, US Marines appear to have murdered women and children in cold blood and covered it up.
There is also a new claim of a similar kind of massacre at a place called Ishaqi. Last week the American military issued fresh ethical guidelines for soldiers in Iraq. One marine commander told Time magazine: “If 24 innocent civilians were killed by marines, this will put a hole in the heart of every single marine.”
I believe him. But I do not believe that this president has ever acknowledged his own responsibility for the atrocities committed by Americans on his watch and under his command. He simply cannot process the fact that his own hand provided the signature that allowed torture to spread like a cancer through the military and CIA.
He cannot acknowledge that his own war policy — of just enough troops to lose — has created a war of attrition in Iraq in which soldiers are often overwhelmed and demoralised and stretched to the limit, and so more than usually vulnerable to the psychic snaps that sometimes lead to atrocities.
His obdurate refusal to change course, to provide sufficient troops, to fire his defence secretary, to embrace, rather than evade, the McCain amendment has robbed him of any excuse, any evasion of responsibility.
And yet he still evades it. Last week he spoke of Abu Ghraib as something that had somehow happened to him and to his country, almost as if he were not the commander-in-chief or president of the country that had committed such abuse. When the evidence is presented to him, he displaces it. He puts it to one side. In his mind America is a force for good. And so it cannot commit evil. And if he says that often enough it will somehow become true. In this way his powers of denial kick in like a forcefield against reality.
It is, I think, an integral part of his own world view, which is that of a former addict whose life was transformed by a rigid form of fundamentalist Christianity. “[My faith] frees me to enjoy life and not worry what comes next,” he told the reporter Fred Barnes. When you know you have been saved, when you know your motives are pure, when, as Bush so often puts it, your ‘heart’ is a good one, then it follows that you cannot commit evil. Or if you do, it doesn’t attach to you. Somehow, it isn’t yours, even when it is.
In this sense fundamentalist Christianity can enable evil by promoting the lie that some humans have been saved from it. It misses the deeper Christian truth that even good people can do bad things. It forgets that what is noble about America is not that Americans are somehow morally better than anyone else. But that it is a country with a democratic system that helps expose the constancy of human evil, and minimise its power through the rule of law, democratic accountability and constitutional checks.
That system was devised by men who assumed the worst of people, not the best, who expected Americans not to be better than any other people, but the same. It was the wisdom of the system that would save America, not the moral superiority of its people.
What is so tragic about this presidency is that it has simultaneously proclaimed American goodness while dismantling the constitutional protections and laws that guard against American evil. The good intention has overwhelmed the fact of human fallibility. But reality — human reality — eventually intrudes. Denial breaks down. The physical evidence of torture, of murder, of atrocity, slowly overwhelms the will to disbelieve in it.
I am sorry, Mr President. This is America. And you have helped make it so.