What We Have Become

The worst part of it is that I still kind of like 24.

The Fox action drama that spins out a very bad day in the life of counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer distinguished itself from the beginning with the extremes he would go to to extract information not just from obvious villains, but from well-meaning but misguided innocents. Shouting, threatening, torturing, even shooting one in the head to get his crony to talk--no action was too atrocious if it got Bauer the intel he needed to avert a far greater catastrophe. He was the ultimate pragmatist, doing whatever it took to defend his country, even as his friends, colleagues and superiors cried out in protest. He became a patriotic martyr whose actions, even though they had saved countless lives, rendered him an outcast, rejected by the country he loved. In the process, he endured torture, abuse, gunshots, even death (CLEAR!), not to mention the loss of every friend and family member he had. With its compressed storytelling, each season of 24 was like a revenge-porn passion play, with the Christ figure fighting back at every turn, yet still ending up sacrificed in the end, rejected even by the God of democracy he had just, once more, saved from destruction. He was a scapegoat, the only human being capable of doing what had to be done, however heinous, to save us all, taking upon himself all the consequences, being the one man who broke all rules so the rest of us didn't have to.

And yes, I watched every ticking minute of it.

Part of what grabbed me was knowing this is how the world looks to a Republican chicken hawk, a politician who has never served in the military, yet believes invasion is the answer to all foreign policy problems. There are so many bad guys out there. Let's kill them. In this right wing nerd fantasy, the good guys are excellent shots, the bad guys not so much, and every atrocity is justified by the knowledge that they'd do it to us if we let them.

It's diverting to dabble in these fantasies, enjoy the video-game rush of it all. And then I remember that there are people doing these things in my name, and that unlike Jack Bauer, they are being honored for their crimes.

That's where the fantasy comes apart. At least in 24, there are consequences for the necessary evils Jack Bauer commits. He can never go home, never have a happy marriage, never retire. There are no medals, no honors, and saddest of all, no rest from his labors.

In the real world, on the other hand, torturers are called patriots by President Obama; and the simple act of exposing their techniques is branded partisan treachery by the Republican party (with the notable exception of John McCain, bless him). This embrace of abominable interrogation techniques comes with the blessing of the American people, 53% of whom think there are instances in which it is justified. Following the release of the Senate investigation on CIA torture, director John O. Brennan went to great lengths to insist the torturers were following orders and were--and he quoted the President when he used the word--patriots.

Where have I heard that before? Now I remember: it was Adolf Eichmann's excuse for what he did. It's called the Nuremberg defense, used by every Nazi but Hitler to justify participation in the Holocaust. "I was just doing my duty, serving my country, obeying my superior officer." It's the most banal reason a person can give for dehumanizing another: just doing my job.

Which is why the word "patriot" should be banned from this discussion. Patriots are idealists, not petty bureaucrats. They can be misguided, commit horrible acts in the service of their country, but when they do, it is because they believe they are doing what is right. To engage in actions that one believes to be wrong because one is following orders, to blindly, mechanistically subvert everything one's nation stands for, is anything but patriotic. 

That the majority of citizens in our nation have let their sense of morality slide to the extent that they are willing to accept the idea of torture as just part of the job for national defense is a testament to the effectiveness of the Republican propaganda machine. The double speak of "enhanced interrogation," coupled with the righteous indignation of having, for the first time since 1812, been victims of an assault on our own shores have cost us our ethical spine. When he came into office, Barack Obama insisted that torture was antithetical to our national identity. Now he calls torturers patriots.

The best-known words in American oratory are those spoken by Abraham Lincoln at Gettsyburg. Standing their on the killing field that had taken so many young American lives, he spoke of that event being a catalyst, not for vengeance, but for the rebirth of an America that truly embraced its foundational ethic. If all those dead were not to have died in vain, he said, "this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Being a light to the nations, a city on the hill, a people who place rights over convenience, who sacrifice comfort for liberty, means holding true to our ideals, even in the face of terror. We have become something far less: a people willing to accept practices that just twenty years ago we would have ascribed to Nazis. As I so often explain to kindergartners, just because that child did it to you doesn't make it right for you to do it back. We all understand this, teach it to our children, expect it of our system of justice. It's time we started expecting it of the agencies that guard our borders, as well, lest we become what we beheld when our soldiers liberated the death camps in 1945.

As our President said before he was co-opted by the torturers, "We're better than that."


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