Sunday, July 13, 2008

Down The Memory Hole, Chapter 6,495

Avedon Carol at The Sideshow links to this article by Glenn Greenwald, in praise of the latest book denouncing the Bush Regime for its disregard of the Rule of Law, especially with regard to torture. On one hand, Greenwald's article is accurate enough, though I can't believe that either it or the book he's praising are telling liberals anything they didn't already know about those awful men in the White House and the awful things they've done. Greenwald even says at the outset that the book "reveals several extraordinary (though unsurprising) facts regarding America's torture regime." From there he goes on to a rote sermonette on the importance of obeying the law:
This is what a country becomes when it decides that it will not live under the rule of law, when it communicates to its political leaders that they are free to do whatever they want -- including breaking our laws -- and there will be no consequences. There are two choices and only two choices for every country -- live under the rule of law or live under the rule of men.
And so on, a smooth superhighway of platitudes with which few if any could disagree. (Though one might ask about the rule of unjust laws. I seem to recall, especially in the 1960s, a broadbased bipartisan denunciation of those Americans who broke the Law of the Land when it permitted racial injustice, aggressive war against small Third World countries: if we let Martin Luther King Jr. and his minions commit civil disobedience, what will become of the Rule of Law?)

On the other hand, Greenwald's article is a shameful whitewash of American history. The closest he can come to reality is this:
Yes, I'm well aware that the U.S, like all countries, was deeply imperfect prior to 9/11, and that many of the systematic excesses of the Bush era have their genesis prior to 2001. The difference (a critical one) is that what had been acts of lawbreaking and violations of our national values have become the norm -- consistent with, rather than violative of, our express values and policies.
"Deeply imperfect" -- you have to love that. Greenwald is talking here of multiple occasions of aggression, from genocide against the American Indians through the US invasion of Vietnam and beyond, to the legal killing of a million Iraqis by sanctions imposed by the US through the United Nations. And torture too, lots and lots of it. Noam Chomsky used to drive nice liberals to distraction with his remark that if the Nuremberg principles were followed, every American president since World War II, including Jimmy Carter, would be hanged. I keep referring people to Naomi Klein's great article on "Our Amnesiac Torture Debate" -- I'm sure I've posted the link at The Sideshow more than once -- which laid out how deeply rooted torture is in American policy. I can't see, for example, how the School of the Americas (founded under one Democratic President and moved to the US from its original site in Panama under another Democratic President), represents a mere imperfect act of lawbreaking and a violation of our national values when it has been an instrument of American policy for over sixty years.

Klein is scathing on liberals' refusal to admit the unpleasant reality of American history:
Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the US government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents--that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, at home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8 Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that "America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now." Molly Ivins, expressing her shock that the United States is running a prison gulag, wrote that "it's just this one administration...and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney." And in the November issue of Harper's, William Pfaff argues that what truly sets the Bush Administration apart from its predecessors is "its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations." Pfaff acknowledges that long before Abu Ghraib, there were those who claimed that the School of the Americas was a "torture school," but he says that he was "inclined to doubt that it was really so." Perhaps it's time for Pfaff to have a look at the SOA textbooks coaching illegal torture techniques, all readily available in both Spanish and English, as well as the hair-raising list of SOA grads. ...
The terrible irony of the anti-historicism of the current torture debate is that in the name of eradicating future abuses, these past crimes are being erased from the record. Every time Americans repeat the fairy tale about their pre-Cheney innocence, these already hazy memories fade even further. The hard evidence still exists, of course, carefully archived in the tens of thousands of declassified documents available from the National Security Archive. But inside US collective memory, the disappeared are being disappeared all over again.
I don't believe it is impossible to condemn the crimes of the Bush Regime without acknowledging the crimes of its predecessors. I think that this determined amnesia lies behind the constantly repeated assertion that "we" must "reclaim our government" and "take the country back." I remember how liberals brushed aside criticisms of Clinton's bombing of Iraq in December 1998 with laughter. In the tunnel vision of the corporate media, the only criticism allowed to be voiced was the "Wag the Dog" theory, that Clinton was killing people in order to distract attention from his impeachment. (Or maybe -- broadcast pundits aren't known for their clarity of thought -- they simply mistook any criticism of Clinton's aggression for a "Wag the Dog" theory.) I've never seen Wag the Dog, but I thought its premise was a faked war, with no one actually killed or injured; which is certainly not what happened when Clinton bombed Iraq. That a real bombing could be construed as a fake one says a lot, I think, about the American media's concern for the lives of non-Americans. It's easy to think of US atrocities as evidence of nothing more than 'deep imperfection' if you don't believe that real people were killed by them.

To brush aside real American history, with its real toll of human life, in these terms, is dishonesty as flagrant as that of Bush's defenders. Greenwald is, from what I've read of him before, not totally ignorant, and he's trying very hard. But he's not trying hard enough, and the trouble is that he's so far from alone in his whitewash of the pre-Bush past. Why is it so hard for most of Bush's critics to condemn his crimes without brushing aside the crimes of his predecessors? Why do they think that it's necessary to lie -- and they do lie -- about the history of US involvement in torture and aggression? I suppose it's partly a fear that the existence of precedents could be used by Bush to exculpate himself if he were ever brought to trial (as if that would ever happen), but it seems to go beyond that. These people really cannot bring themselves to face what their government has done, and their hatred of Bush comes down to comparatively trivial partisan sniping, aggravated by a presidential election campaign. Most of them would defend a Democratic President who did the same things. The best that can be said for the Democrats is that most Republicans would be no better: even partisanship didn't impel the Republicans who hated and ultimately impeached Clinton to bring up and condemn his most serious crimes, which didn't bother them at all.