Throughout history, emperors and dictatorial leaders have used violence and torture upon their foreign and domestic subjects. Homo sapiens has been the most violent and bloody species in the evolutionary history of the Earth. Far from limiting this tendency, religion has mostly made our human evil more potent. I do not mean that this is all that religion does; it does some good things too. But its principal fitness advantage in human evolutionary history has been to enhance the power of dominant people. That is, religion evolved primarily as a means of suppression. For our species, it is evil, since we know the difference between altruism and oppression, between love and hatred. A wolf is just a wolf but a violent man is evil.
Many of us grew up with the belief that the United States of America was different, that America was a force for good in the world. Of course, we should have known that this is not true. I should have known this because of what the United States government did to my Cherokee ancestors and to members of every other tribe of Native Americans. And we all should have known that America was not a good country because of government approval of slavery and later of oppression against black people.
Some of us dared to hope that America is not like that anymore. Although much oppression and police brutality remain, the government no longer kills Natives or enslaves blacks. But the recent release of the Senate report on brutality against detainees after September 11, 2001 must cause us to reconsider whether our government is a force of good. Our government’s response was not just to track down terrorists and bring them to justice, but also to grab Muslim men at random and torture them. A detainee is simply someone who has been thrown in prison, without regard to evidence of guilt.
CIA operatives, in some cases, did their best to degrade detainees by “interrogation techniques” that had absolutely no chance of yielding useful information. Torture is not just evil but is scientifically worthless. CIA operatives:
- Used rectal injections on detainees as a method of torture, with no medical justification.
- Subjected detainees to up to 180 hours of sleep deprivation.
- Stripped detainees naked, hooded them, and dragged them down the prison hallways.
- Forced detainees with broken feet or legs to stand in stressful positions.
And the list goes on. Now, suppose I were captured in a random sweep of white American men by a Muslim government and subjected to these tortures. I would confess to anything to get the pain to stop, since it would be clear that this would be the only way to stop the pain. I would confess to being a secret agent from Mars.
As if this news was not bad enough, Dick Cheney has gone on record as saying that he had no regrets about having the CIA do any of these things, and that he would do them again in a minute. He is proud that we torture people to force them to say what we want them to say. This is what the former Vice President wants the world to think about the United States.
Cheney proclaimed that we should not have been nice to the people who attacked us. But the people who actually attacked us on 9-11 were dead. And some of the detainees were guilty, and some were not; torture did not yield any useful information regarding which was which. It would be like terrorists grabbing random Americans and torturing them—which is, in fact, what they do, and something that, until now, we have pretended we did not do.
Okay, so we were not as bad as many other countries, such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And today we are not as bad as, let me think, North Korea. But that is not the point. We claim moral superiority, that we are a good nation fighting against bad ones. The fact that our government differs from evil governments in degree rather than quality is of little comfort to those of us who wish we could be proud to be Americans.
Not all Americans are bad, of course. Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize, after all. At least he has some respect in the world. But the world also knows the utter and pure hostility with which Republicans confront Mr. Obama. And there are millions of other good Americans, some of whom are reading these words. But what difference does it make? They hear what Mr. Obama says, and they hear what the CIA has done, and they believe the actions rather than the words. And for every Barack Obama saying peaceful things, there is a Dick Cheney proclaiming that America will do whatever it wants to whomever it wants whenever it wants.
Having Dick Cheney be the face of America in the world right now proclaims one thing and one thing only: America is strong only because of its force and wealth. The moment that we falter, economically or militarily, we deserve no cooperation or mercy from the rest of the world, which we have disdained. Because of this, I am ashamed to be an American. I am not ashamed of good Americans, including some who are very rich but who spend their wealth to try to eradicate diseases such as malaria that afflict millions of poor people in the world. But the actions of my government cause me to hang my head in shame.
Islamic extremists claim, You call us barbaric? You call us evil? While this does not justify their continued acts of terrorism, it is perfectly clear why they hate us. And I can make no defense for the official actions of the United States of America. Of course we are not as evil as they are (e.g. shooting Malala Yousafzai in the head; she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize the same day that the report was released). But they are terrorists, and we are supposedly the nation of goodness and peace, so the mere fact that we are not as bad as they are means nothing for our image.
We are strong in the world because of our military power and our wealth. That is all. We cannot expect any respect from other countries, but only fear. They will be nice to us because they don’t want us doing something evil to them. We spend more money on military activities than all other countries combined, so it is clear that we can wipe the floor with anybody’s asses if they stand against us. We are the Babylon, the Roman Empire, of the modern world. And that is pretty much all there is to it.
Can you see why I cannot think of a title for this essay? What word or phrase could encompass the profound stain that permeates America’s image now?