America is the republic of fear and paranoia
Last week’s furore over the US senate’s report into the CIA’s torture of detainees was a reminder that since 9/11, America’s decision-makers have been a little like Darren Wilson, the Missouri policeman who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last August. By his own account, Mr Wilson had been mortally afraid.
Brown, he said, “looked like a demon”, and he feared the young man might punch him to death. In his own mind therefore, he had acted in self-defence when he shot Brown dead.
The 2001 terror attacks left US leaders making decisions in a climate of exaggerated mortal fear. The Bush administration’s “war on terror” saw Americans accept unprecedented mass surveillance, the detention and torture of foreign suspects at offshore locations, use of unmanned drones to execute suspects many thousands of miles away by remote control, and catastrophic invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The political and media establishment largely abrogated their responsibility, creating a climate of fear so pervasive it has never really receded. The frenzy of fear resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The United States invaded Iraq because it couldn’t be sure Saddam Hussein didn’t still have some of the old stocks of chemical weapons it had helped him acquire in the 1980s to use against Iranian troops.
The Bush administration – most Democrats and the media were complicit – set out to persuade Americans that Iraq, despite being hobbled by two decades of war and sanctions and scarcely a threat to its immediate neighbours, now somehow posed a mortal threat to the American mainland. This threat, it was suggested, could even materialise as a nuclear attack. Much of America’s liberal media establishment accepted the idea that the US should ignore international law and invade Iraq as an act of pre-emptive “self-defence”.
Typically, self-defence is the explanation used by white police officers in the frequent shootings of unarmed black men. More often than not, as with Mr Wilson, the threat they feared was imagined.
Fear continues to pervade the US. It is as evident in the sales figures of guns and ammunitions as in the official order that medical personnel returning from West Africa be quarantined.
ISIL and Ebola were cited most on the campaign trail in last month’s midterm elections. CNN even offered its own taxonomy of panic by branding Ebola the ISIL of biological agents.
When the torture report’s executive summary was released last week, the political and media discussion focused on whether the programme had been effective. The debate was not about the legality of waterboarding, anal rape and other grotesque tactics as part of the systematic White House-authorised torture of captives by the CIA.
The senate report questions whether it yielded any significant intelligence; its critics dispute this. But the implication seems to be that if torture worked, then there was nothing to discuss – despite the fact that torture is, in fact, prohibited under US law.
Indeed, despite that legal prohibition, a New York Times poll last week found that fully half of the American public believe that torture is an acceptable tactic against terrorism.
Even when America’s leaders do things that violate their own stated values and laws, there is a public presumption of unique virtue. President Obama suggests that the practices outlined in the report are “contrary to who we are”, implying that actions taken by US security personnel under government authorisation did not represent America. And yet he promised that nobody would be held to account even if laws had been broken.
“There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic US government torture by declaring that the real America– the one with good values – does not torture,” wrote liberal columnist Peter Beinart, a one-time advocate of invading Iraq. “It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that ‘I’m not really like that’ … A country, like a person, is what it does.”
When questioned about the brutality of the torture techniques described in the senate report, former acting CIA director John McLaughlin answered: “There will be things in this report that will be disturbing graphically, but I suspect if you had a similarly graphic description of what happens when innocents are killed in a drone strike, you would be equally disturbed by what you read.”
Mr McLaughlin wasn’t implying that Americans should be scrutinising Mr Obama’s secretive drone programme; he was asking that the torture programme get the same don’t-ask-don’t-tell treatment on Capitol Hill and in the media. Clearly, he is telling liberal Americans that they “can’t handle the truth” of what is required to protect them from all they are supposed to fear.
He even acknowledges that mistakes will be made and innocents will be killed. Whether or not that comforts Americans, it is cold comfort to a world that must live with the consequences of an unrivalled military power projecting that power in a fog of panic.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York
Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM