This piece was published in 2007.
I dusted it off this week after digesting the CIA torture report.I find I have a curious nostalgia these days for the America I grew up in.
Maybe that America was just an idea, but you can live in an idea as surely as you can live in a physical space.
I was an American kid living in a suburb in the early 1960s. My parents were rock-ribbed Goldwater Republicans. The United States was the best country on earth.
We said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, and when a space capsule went up, the teachers stopped class and hauled out a big black-and-white TV on a rolling cart, and we all watched and clapped. Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra. Rhymes with hurrah. Our fifth-grade teachers told us the Soviets let their capsules come down on land, instead of water, because they didn’t care whether the cosmonauts inside lived or died. Bad Russians.
God, I miss that American glow. I can feel it right now, as surely as I can remember the sun gleaming across a snow fort I built with my friends on Pleasant Street in West Hartford or the wink of fireflies as we played hide-and-seek in a field on Wells Road. America was the best place on earth, from sea to shining sea, and we lived there.
What came next were years of dark moments. Assassinations, riots, the Vietnam War, Watergate. The last of these was especially hard for my Republican Dad. He watched the hearings on television, and Watergate became a big fat python, winding itself around his trust and constricting. He watched with his mouth half open, and from time to time he would say, as if to himself and heaven, “These people are evil.”
And after that, he was never a Republican again.
None of that was easy, but every single one of those dark days seemed to us like a default from the American ideal.
I don’t remember when, as a kid, I first comprehended the idea of torture. But it was a tale told, always, about the Other. Nazis, Japs, Viet Cong. Do you know what they do to their captives? The Emperor Ming had Buck Rogers strapped to a board. James Bond would get loose before SPECTRE could torture him.
The very word “atrocity” had kind of a foreign ring. Atrocities. They do those over there. Later it was El Salvadoran death squads and SAVAK.
And to some, this already sounds pretty naive. Certainly by the 1980s, if you knew where to look, you could read allegations and rumors about, for example, the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., where our guys and their guys were supposedly trained to help out with torture and other coercive tactics in Latin America and the Caribbean.
You could also decide to ignore what must be the frothing of the paranoid fringe, spouting impossibilities about a nation founded unshakably on the rule of law.
You could still, in those days, tell yourself that we were the kind of great power President Theodore Roosevelt, a great Republican, described during the occupation of the Philippines:
“Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”
The local insurgents had committed atrocities against American soldiers, and the American response had been, among other things, a technique perfected in the Spanish Inquisition. An enemy would be held down, his arms and legs and head immobilized against the terrible thrashing that was to come. His mouth would be propped open and water would be poured in steadily, until it began to fill his lungs. The man would experience the panic and agony of drowning, slowly, without relief.
Roosevelt didn’t want us to do that, even against an enemy without scruple. We were, after all, Americans.
Of course, that technique is what we now call waterboarding.
Now I watch while the nominee for attorney general tells U.S. senators he’s not really sure that’s torture and not sure if it’s illegal.
Last week, on the radio, I heard a startling interview with Malcolm Nance, a former Navy instructor who taught American military people what to expect when under torture. One of the teaching techniques was to waterboard. Nance had it done to him, so he’d know. Is it torture?
“Yes. Of course it is,” said Nance.
Here is what Nance has written about it: “Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration — usually the person goes into hysterics on the board.”
Nance is having trouble with his American glow. He said on the radio: “Did Sept. 11 hurt us so much that we are willing to give away those American values? I, for one, am not.”
Sept. 11 is not an abstraction for this guy. Nance was there when the plane hit the Pentagon. He worked as a rescuer that day.
Still, he writes, “I am bewildered at how casually we have thrown off the mantle of world-leader in justice and honor.”
Later the same day, I had a chance to talk to Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration. I was in the middle of some long-winded question that included Michael Mukasey and waterboarding and he said: “Wait a minute. How difficult would it be for an attorney general nominee to say that waterboarding is torture? I don’t think there’s any question.”
I’m 53 now. I’m the American Dad, with his mouth hanging open while the people who run this country try to convince us it’s OK to be monsters, just because we’re fighting monsters.
It’s not. Bush, Cheney and the willing souls they have enlisted … these people are not especially American. They would have functioned pretty well in the Gestapo, the Japanese Kempeitai, the Salvadoran paramilitary, the Khmer Rouge. They would have found pretty good jobs with the shah of Iran or with Pinochet, and they wouldn’t have had to change much of their thinking. The enemy is bad, and you do what it takes to preserve yourself against them. No principle, no law trumps that.
Do you think that way, too? Or are you with me and Nance and Armitage? As I said, I’m 53. My snow fort is gone. But somebody stuffed my boyhood head with ideas about freedom, justice, equal protection under the law, inalienable rights, honor. And those ideas still light up, faintly, like the remembered fireflies of hide-and-seek on Wells Road. Those ideas are my American glow.