On Being America

Jeff wrote about this today, at his place and at Alas!, and a bunch of other folks have picked it up too:

Shepard Smith, on a Fox program called “Freedom Watch,” discussing recent coverage of the Obama administration’s release of Bush-era DOJ memos “authorizing” torture, and Michael Hayden’s claims that torturing prisoners provided useful information, very dramatically banged his fist on the desk and yelled, “We are America!  I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps: we are America!  We do not fucking torture!  We don’t do it!” while the other panelists tried to keep giving the calm, fair and balanced view of both sides of the issue that Fox is known for.

I’ve seen a fair amount of cheering for Shep Smith on this, and as far as that goes, well, sure, I agree: outrage, indignation and profanity are the only sane reaction to a government so calculatedly setting about to torture people into giving false confessions which could then be used as justifications for launching an illegal, immoral war of conquest against an unfriendly, but hardly dangerous, tinpot dictatorship which happened to be in possession of and in proximity to an awful lot of oil.

(Which, just by the way, did Shep Smith bang his fists on any desks about the launching of that war, at the time?  It wasn’t known at the time that we’d been torturing people to obtain our pretext, but no serious consideration of the available information could possibly have led any reasonable person to conclude it was anything other than an illegal war of aggression, and thus a war crime.  I certainly don’t remember hearing about Smith, or much of anyone in the media — Krugman being an exception — doing a lot of desk-pounding.  I’m just saying, is all.)

So anyway, you know, good for Smith.  But what he’s saying isn’t actually true.  We do torture.  We’ve done it several times.  In fact, we tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month, if we only count one kind of torture.  That’s precisely what these memos, for example, are about.  What he means is “we are America, so torturing is incompatible with how we’re supposed to behave, with who we were before 9/11,” but what he actually said — which, except for the “fucking,” is exactly the phrase President Obama has used when promising to end torture, and exactly the phrase President Bush used when lying about the fact that we were  torturing — is “we don’t torture,” and that’s just not true.

It’s an attempt, I think, to salvage a belief in the United States’s righteousness.  We — us — the real America — America as we’re supposed to be — we don’t torture!  We never would!  The last eight years, that, um, that wasn’t really us!  We were kind of crazy because of 9/11, and these awful guys Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were in power, and, and, and, a hundred reasons why it doesn’t count.


First, “that doesn’t count” is a way of saying “we shouldn’t have to do anything about it, our insistance that ‘we don’t’ should be enough.”  Second, even though we didn’t actually elect Bush in 2000, and depending on how you feel about what happened in Ohio may not have elected him in 2004 either, about half of us voted for him, each time over an obviously better, more qualified, more experienced, smarter, better person.  We voted for the Representatives and Senators who signed onto the illegal war of conquest, who steadfastly insisted even once the opposition party gained control that impeachment was  “off the table,” who failed to demand sweeping, thorough investigations from the top down as soon as the first allegations of torture surfaced, who went along with plans to illegally eavesdrop on American citizens without warrants.  And all of that does count.  We don’t get to pretend it didn’t happen.  We don’t get to pretend someone else did it.

And finally: that righteousness Smith wants to protect his belief in was a lie from the start.  “America doesn’t torture?”  Are you sure?  If you read histories that weren’t necessarily written by and for people who look like Shep Smith, you might come to a different conclusion.  If you ask communities of color who’ve been subjected to the unchecked, arbitrary power of racist police departments for years, or citizens of Latin American countries whose socialist governments the CIA tried to destabilize or that were run by School of the Americas graduates, or the Vietnamese, or Native Americans, or the descendants of slaves, or LGBTQI people whether America tortures and commits atrocities and war crimes, you might get a different answer than what Smith implies.

We can’t pretend that was all someone else.  We can’t pretend we’re special.  It was us, and denying it is just as dangerous as denying the Holocaust happened, and for pretty much the same reasons.  Langston Hughes wrote, “America never was America to me.”  By the nature of the ideal of America, of course, so long as there is anyone to whom America is not America, America — the America Shep Smith talks about, the America that America never was — still does not exist.  In fact it very probably never will.  But the point of ideals is not to achieve them, but to strive constantly to get closer to them, and if we tell ourselves that ideal America Hughes swore would be already is, and our striving can be ended, then nothing’s surer than that it will only get further away.


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