The Bush Legacy: Journey to the Dark Side
Ending the Era of Hypocrisy
American Presidents of the Vietnam and Latin American war years operated in a realm of deniability when it came to torture and other such practices. No American could then have imagined a Vice President heading for Capitol Hill to lobby openly for a torture bill or a President publicly threatening to veto Congressional legislation banning torture techniques. Call it the end of an era of American hypocrisy, if you will, but the Bush legacy will be, in part, simply the routinization of the practice of torture, abuse, kidnapping and illegal imprisonment.
George W. Bush didn't invent the world he inhabits. He, his top officials, and all their lawyers who wrote those bizarre "torture memos" that will be hallmarks of his era chose from existing strains of thought, from urges and tendencies already in American culture. But their record on this has, nonetheless, been remarkable. In just about every case, they chose to bring out the worst in us; in just about every case, they took us on as direct a journey as possible to the dark side.
It's not necessary to romanticize the American past in any way to consider the legacy of these last years grim indeed. Let no one tell you that the institution of a global network of secret prisons and borrowed torture chambers, along with those "enhanced interrogation techniques," was primarily done for information or even security. The urge to resort to such tactics is invariably more primal than that.
Words matter more than one would think. In the Bush era, certain words have simply been sidelined. Sovereignty, for instance. If, in principle, you can kidnap anyone, anywhere, and transport that person into a ghost existence anywhere else, then national sovereignty essentially no longer has significance. This is one meaning of "globalization" in the twenty-first century. On Planet Bush, only one nation remains "sovereign," and that's the United States of America.
If you want to test this proposition, just take any recent case of torture, mistreatment, or secret imprisonment, including Erla Osk's landing in New York,, and try to reverse it. Make an American the central victim and another country of your choice the perpetrator and imagine the reaction of the Bush Administration, no less the American media and the public.
Or consider another word that once had great resonance in American culture, not to speak of its legal system: innocence. Americans prided themselves on their "innocence"--even when mocked as "innocents abroad"--and took pride as well in a system based on the phrase, "innocent until proven guilty."
Despite their repeated, thoroughly worn denials about torture, the top officials of this Administration remade themselves, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, as a Torture, Inc. And their actions since then have gone a long way toward turning us, by association and tacit acquiescence, into a nation of torturers, willing to accept, in case after case, that a "war" against "terror" supposed to last for generations justifies just about any act imaginable, including the continued mistreatment and incarceration of people who remain somehow guilty even, in certain cases, after being proven innocent.
This is the American welcome wagon of the twenty-first century. If you really want to catch the spirit of the Bush legacy one year early, try to imagine the poem an Emma Lazarus of this moment might write, something appropriate perhaps for a gigantic statue in New York harbor of one of the guards at the CIA "black site" in Afghanistan who kept Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni, picked up and tortured into a false confession in Jordan, in a living nightmare for nineteen months. As Bashmilah described the typical guard in the secret prison, he was utterly silent, dressed all in black, a black mask covering his head and neck, tinted yellow plastic over the eyes, his hands sheathed in rubber gloves. Imagine that guard, then, holding up not a torch but a video camera and dragging chains behind him. That would be a statue suitable indeed for the Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush Administration has established in the six years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
For a longer version of this piece that details many of the torture, kidnapping, and secret-imprisonment stories that melted out of December's iceberg of news on such topics, go to Tomdispatch.com.]