Is it possible to fall out of love with your own country? For two years, I, like many Americans, have been focused intently on documenting, exposing, and alerting the nation to the Bush administration’s criminality and its assault on the Constitution and the rule of law – a story often marginalized at home. I was certain that when Americans knew what was being done in their name, they would react with horror and outrage.
Three months ago, the Bush administration still clung to its devil’s sound bite, “We don’t torture.” Now, Physicians for Human Rights has issued its report documenting American-held detainees’ traumas, and even lie detector tests confirm they have been tortured. The Red Cross report has leaked: torture and war crimes. Jane Mayer’s impeccably researched exposé The Dark Side just hit the stores: torture, crafted and directed from the top. The Washington Post gave readers actual video footage of the abusive interrogation of a Canadian minor, Omar Khadr, who was seen showing his still-bleeding abdominal wounds, weeping and pleading with his captors.
So the truth is out and freely available. And America is still napping, worrying about its weight, and hanging out at the mall.
I had thought that after so much exposure, thousands of Americans would be holding vigils on Capitol Hill, that religious leaders would be asking God’s forgiveness, and that a popular groundswell of revulsion, similar to the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement, would emerge. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
And yet no such thing has occurred. There is no crisis in America’s churches and synagogues, no Christian and Jewish leaders crying out for justice in the name of Jesus, a tortured political prisoner, or of Yahweh, who demands righteousness. I asked a contact in the interfaith world why. He replied, “The mainstream churches don’t care, because they are Republican. And the synagogues don’t care, because the prisoners are Arabs.”
It was then that I realized that I could not be in love with my country right now. How can I care about the fate of people like that? If this is what Americans are feeling, if that is who we are, we don’t deserve our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Even America’s vaunted judicial system has failed to constrain obvious abuses. A Federal court has ruled that the military tribunals system – Star Chambers where evidence derived from torture is used against the accused – can proceed. Another recently ruled that the president may call anyone anywhere an “enemy combatant” and detain him or her indefinitely.
So Americans are colluding with a criminal regime. We have become an outlaw nation – a clear and present danger to international law and global stability – among civilized countries that have been our allies. We are – rightly – on Canada’s list of rogue nations that torture.
Europe is still high from Barack Obama’s recent visit. Many Americans, too, hope that an Obama victory in November will roll back this nightmare. But this is no time to yield to delusions. Even if Obama wins, he may well be a radically weakened president. The Bush administration has created a transnational apparatus of lawlessness that he alone, without global intervention, can neither roll back nor control.
Private security firms – for example, Blackwater – will still be operating, accountable neither to him nor to Congress, and not bound, they have argued, by international treaties. Weapons manufacturers and the telecommunications industry, with billions at stake in maintaining a hyped “war on terror” and their new global surveillance market, will deploy a lavishly financed army of lobbyists to defend their interests.
Moreover, if elected, Obama will be constrained by his own Democratic Party. America’s political parties bear little resemblance to the disciplined organizations familiar in parliamentary democracies in Europe and elsewhere. And Democrats in Congress will be even more divided after November if, as many expect, conservative members defeat Republican incumbents damaged by their association with Bush.
To be sure, some Democrats have recently launched Congressional hearings into the Bush administration’s abuses of power. Unfortunately, with virtually no media coverage, there is little pressure to broaden official investigations and ensure genuine accountability.
But, while grassroots pressure has not worked, money still talks. We need targeted government-led sanctions against the US by civilized countries, including international divestment of capital. Many studies have shown that tying investment to democracy and human rights reform is effective in the developing world. There is no reason why it can’t be effective against the world’s superpower.
We also need an internationally coordinated strategy for prosecuting war criminals at the top and further down the chain of command – individual countries pressing charges, as Italy and France have done. Although the United States is not a signatory to the statute that established the International Criminal Court, violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes for which anyone – potentially even the US president – may be tried in any of the other 193 countries that are parties to the conventions. The whole world can hunt these criminals down.
An outlaw America is a global problem that threatens the rest of the international community. If this regime gets away with flouting international law, what is to prevent the next administration – or this administration, continuing under its secret succession plan in the event of an emergency – from going further and targeting its political opponents at home and abroad?
We Americans are either too incapable, or too dysfunctional, to help ourselves right now. Like drug addicts or the mentally ill who refuse treatment, we need our friends to intervene. So remember us as we were in our better moments, and take action to save us – and the world – from ourselves.
Maybe then I can fall in love with my country again.