This first full week of 2015 has been a sad one. On Tuesday, an NAACP office in Colorado was bombed in an act of domestic terrorism. Luckily, no one was killed or seriously injured. On Wednesday, extremists entered the office of the internationally popular French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and shotguns. The men fired over 50 rounds, killing at least 12 people, including the magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, and wounding 11 others.
This attack on Charlie Hebdo brings to mind horrific terrorist attacks in the recent years since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center killed 2,993 people and injured 8,900 more. There was the series of bombings in Istanbul in 2003, which killed 57 people and injured 700 more. And the 2005 London train bombings, which killed 52 people and injured 700 in a series of coordinated strikes. And the 2005 bombings in New Delhi during the festival of Diwali, which killed 62 people and wounded 210. And the combination of bombings and shootings in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 164 people and injured 308. And finally, Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks in Norway killing eight people with bombs in government houses in Olso and then gunning down 69 mostly teenagers on the island of Utøya.
These terrorist attacks are reprehensible acts of cowardice, and they are to be condemned from every news outlet and house of government in the world.
However, after thinking about all of these attacks, I started to think about the responses from the nations involved. In particular, the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I believe that a nation can be judged by no less a standard.
Response: solidarity, defiance, … war?
So far, the response to the attack at Charlie Hebdo has been a rally-cry of support from other satirical publications around the world. Within France, people have been holding pens up in the air, lighting candles, and mourning along with the families of the victims. As far as I know, France has declared war against no one and nothing.
After Anders Breivik carried out his horrendous deeds, Norway put him on trial and sentenced him to 21 years preventive detention, essentially the same as a life sentence. The London bombings resulted in a series of investigations, police raids, trials, imprisonments, and deportations. There were also massive demonstrations of love and support for the victims and their families. The same sorts of things happened in India after the New Delhi and Mumbai attacks.
Of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a terrible tragedy on a scale much larger than the other attacks I listed. Sept. 11, 2001, is the kind of day that lives in infamy. All Americans old enough will forever remember where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt when we first found out what had happened. I was in the fall of my second year of college and my father was working in Manhattan on that day. I can actively remember the knot of fear in my chest, and the tremble in my mother’s voice over the phone as she was telling me that we couldn’t get ahold of him. My father was okay, though many people weren’t so lucky. They lost parents, children, siblings, husbands, wives, friends, and colleagues as a result of that unspeakable act. That was our time of challenge and controversy.
How have we responded? I don’t mean individually. There are many brave and honorable men and women who have given of their time, substance, and even lives in response to that attack, and I don’t mean for this to take away from what they did. Soldiers and sailors, fire and police workers, and everyday men and women rushed to the scene to help survivors. I mean to ask, how did we respond as a nation?
Naturally, the people of America swept up in support of the victims and their families. Funds were created, laws were passed (though sometimes quite delayed), memorials were erected, and the country mourned.
Giving in to fear
And we went to war. Over the course of that war, up to 500,000 people died and Iraq suffered damages estimated at $394.4 billion. The invasion decimated Iraq’s essential infrastructure, including electricity, potable water, political and governance systems, and telecommunications.
We had given in to fear. Islamophobia gripped the nation and still does today. We laid the blame for al Qaida’s attack at the feet of every Muslim in the world, passing laws against Sharia law in U.S. cities and crying foul at a planned mosque near the site of the old World Trade Center towers. We gave over our individual freedoms in the so-called Patriot Act, and then were aghast with surprise and shock when we found out that the NSA was listening to our phone calls and reading our e-mails.
Of course they were, we asked them to.
We declared war on an idea. We passed an authorization for military force that, to this day, amounts to a blank check for the U.S. to bring holy war and retribution to whatever corner of the globe that we can tie to any Muslim terrorist cell, international laws and sovereign nations be damned.
And we tortured people. We drowned them, and froze them, and starved them, and broke them, and stripped them naked, violating their very persons, all for the sake of fear.
On Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, the U.S. Senate released a redacted version of the executive summary from the investigative report that it commissioned on the CIA torture practices post-9/11. Even the cut-down version of the summary is 525 pages long. The Senate report was actually completed in 2012, but there has been a protracted, two-year battle with the Obama Administration over how much of it to release, and now we know why.
Ceding the moral high ground
People can say what they want about the Senate torture report, and many have. Dick Cheney called it “a bunch of hooey” before he had even read it. Past CIA directors have tripped all over themselves to defend the agency’s actions, with Former Director John McLaughlin even going so far as to say, “We may have made a few terrorists uncomfortable for a short period of time in order to get information that we felt was essential to protecting the United States.” Not one of those men bothered to say that the actions alleged in the report didn’t happen. They only said that they were “justified” or that they were “legal.”
And, “uncomfortable” says former Director McLaughlin? What does he mean by uncomfortable? Well vox.com and Rachel Maddow’s blog both detail some of the worst atrocities — such as shackling people’s wrists above their heads and forcing them to stand on broken feet for hours or days; waterboarding people 183 times in a row; keeping people in pitch-black, freezing solitary confinement for days or weeks; causing a person to lose his left eye through torture; keeping people awake for 180 hours on end; and grinding up a person’s food and rectally infusing it when it wasn’t medically necessary.
I don’t know the answer to that, and we, as a nation, may never know. The bulk of the report remains classified and the CIA is alleged to have destroyed evidence of its conduct. The thing is, I don’t really care. I don’t care if the information that we got was valuable and I don’t care if it wasn’t. This is not a case where the ends, ANY ends, justify the means.
We cannot, as a nation, hold ourselves out to be a bastion of truth and justice in this world, bringer of democracy and the rule of law, defender of the downtrodden, champion of individual rights, and guarantor of freedom and equality for all, if we turn around and set all that aside when the going gets tough.
Terrorism is a repulsive practice, and I weep for the deaths of the thousands who have perished at its hands. But America is a punitive nation. We see it in our justice system that is among the harshest in the developed world. We have some of the highest incarceration rates, and we are the only developed nation, besides Japan, that permits capital punishment. Justice Anthony Kennedy once said, “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” We need to be constantly on guard that our own vengeful proclivities don’t override our humanity.
The United Nations Charter, which we helped draft and onto which we are signed, is based on recognition that the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Those rights, the U.N. says, derive from the inherent dignity of the human person. There is no exception to inherent human rights for suspected terrorists, or those who have committed certain crimes, or those we find distasteful, or those we judge to have given up their humanity through their acts.
But we, in the United States, have a history of ignoring those human rights in favor of whatever suits us. Look around, right now, at the reactions to this report. Many are appalled at what it reveals, but just as many are celebrating, celebrating, what happened. Go to Rachel Maddow’s Dec. 10 report on this and skip to 6:35 to see some of the torture supporters’ reactions. They range from Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss saying that the torture program was effective, to Nicole Wallace saying “I pray to God that, to the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what’s happening. And the notion that this somehow makes America less great is asinine and dangerous,” to The Five’s Eric Bolling saying “I celebrate what the CIA did…”
We are all accountable
And I keep saying that we did this. All of us are culpable for what was done in our name. We, the voters, did nothing to stop it, nothing to hold those responsible accountable, and we turned a blind eye as it was happening. Sure, there were protests, and people wrote angry op-eds like this one, but enough of us didn’t speak with our vote. We allowed comfortable, secure, complacency to deaden our ears and stifle our hearts to what we were doing to people. And when we did take notice, we allowed our own fears to serve as justification.
Yes, the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil were devastating in magnitude. Thousands died and thousands more were injured. But does that justify our response? Look at what other nations have done. They have sought those responsible and brought them to legitimate justice. Not one has invaded another nation’s sovereign territory, toppled any governments, laid waste to any cultures, or tortured anyone in the name of retribution. The United States is very likely the last great superpower. We have the economic and military might to destroy any other nation on earth. In fact, we have such might that, if all the other nations in the world allied against us, we still could likely never be conquered. Defeated? Possibly. Conquered. No. We need to learn to use that power with the dignity and reverence that it deserves. Instead, we consistently place it in the hands of self-serving, petty politicians; behind the interests of oppressive regimes and dictators around the world; and use it to seek revenge and retribution rather than justice.
It is horrifying what took place in France this first week of 2015, and what happened in England, Norway, India, and many other countries. But if we in America are to learn anything from it, let it be this: Nicole Wallace is wrong. What we did in waging war and perpetrating torture does make America less great. It is an affront to human nature and an indelible stain on the history of our nation. And what makes it worse is that the only thing standing between us and doing it again is the executive order of President Barack Obama.
At the next crisis, it will only take the word of whoever is president at the time to bring this torturous abomination back into being … all in the name of freedom, justice, and peace.