How Does America Regain Its Moral Authority?


Remember how, as 2014 drew to a close, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on torture by the Central Intelligence Agency? How the tactics used by the CIA and our allies were barbaric, inhumane and inexcusable? What moral authority our country once had was lost in the details of that report. The question is how we get it back. Can we?

The report reveals, among other things, three critical facts:

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  1. The tactics used were hidden behind Orwellian terms such as “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping) and “enhanced interrogation.” But torture is torture.
  2. Much of the torture took place on American territory – Guantanamo — a fact hidden from Congress.
  3. The torture occurred despite the U.S. being a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, not to mention the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I am sure clever lawyers in the Bush Administration discovered a way around these legal constraints. Before we can ask how we can get back our moral authority in the world, we have to pose some other questions first. For example: “What happened to asking what is the right and moral thing to do?” — not “Can we get a legal memorandum that says we have the authority to do this?” This is how the Obama Administration still justifies killing American citizens with drones — that is, without due process, without trial by jury. It’s simply through the reliance on a legal memorandum.

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TortureAfter one reads the report, you are forced to ask other questions as well. “If it is permissible to perform “rectal rehydration” on hunger-striking inmates awaiting charges,” for example, “then what has happened to freedom of expression, presumption of innocence and prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment?” Here’s one: “Does anything go in the name of “national security”? Imagine the outrage if a “rectal rehydration’’ had been performed on Mahatma Gandhi during one of his famous hunger strikes, or on antiwar protestors during the Vietnam War. Yet it seems those hunger-striking inmates awaiting charges at Guantanamo pose some kind of “national security” threat, one that justifies the CIA using this gruesome procedure.

As we move into 2015 and presidential campaigning, the candidates should have to answer these questions as well as move to those that will confront us in the future. “How do we restore our conduct and reconcile it with our role as the world’s policeman, upholding law and civil order?” “Do you believe that while U.S. citizens accused of violating the law are entitled to their day in court, the rest of the world’s citizens are not?” “How do we regain our moral authority as a nation?”

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Torture 2Their answers — if they have them; if we ask them — may be enlightening.

Equally, if not more important, will be this: What is your position, Mr. or Mrs. Candidate, on whether blind justice, privacy rights and reverence to the Bill of Rights is still present here in the U.S., and if it is a pretense, as many believe, how will you bring it back to reality?

I use the word “pretense” guardedly. One had to have a yearlong power outage to not know that the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York have caused many Americans to feel and express the view that our justice system is not blind, that some people in America are more equal than others.

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Not to mention the continued use of the death penalty, in particular the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, on whom untested drugs were used with such horrible results that the warden called it a “bloody mess.” Why is that an accepted part of our culture? And despite continued promises of more transparency, the Obama administration continues the wholesale monitoring of Americans’ cell phone and email accounts.

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It seems any differences between the use of U.S. power in domestic or international matters is blurred. Many believe the willingness of the U.S. to bend the law and condone barbaric treatment is grounded in differences of race, ethnicity, or religion. They question whether Americans would tolerate activities as described in the Senate Intelligence Committee report if the victims were white Christians. I don’t think race or religion is at the core of our misuse of power. But I can see where they would believe it is.

I believe the force behind our inexcusable conduct is arrogance — arrogance of power — a belief by those in power that they know what’s best for the rest of us, and that the bending of a few rules, the causing of a few deaths and suffering are a small price to pay for the largesse of the protection we receive. Not surprisingly, a lot of Americans feel torture is justifiable to stop terrorism. On the other hand, I worry that we are tearing down the foundation of our liberties for this so-called protection, that one day we will have no liberty left to protect.

However you may feel, there should be questions in 2015 and more questions in 2016. We should listen to the candidates, regardless of whether their answers sound arrogant. It should go a long way in choosing our leadership. It should go a long way in telling us whether our moral authority as a nation may be reclaimed.

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