WHAT IS US?

The recent revelation by the government of the tactics used by the CIA in handling suspected terrorists was an obvious blow to all of us, most obviously to those who made fools of themselves trying to justify conduct that veritably defined torture. Far more critical than the damage such information would do to our reputation around the world was the damage done to our own grasp of who we are as a nation. No one captured that pain better than the president, when he summed up his reaction to the report by saying, “That is not us.” Whatever may be our political and religious affiliations, we.as a nation, do not define ourselves by the Machiavellian principle that we can do whatever we think will work to achieve our ends.

No one doubts that those who participated in the inhumane and even hideous conduct described in the report were patriots, and no one doubts that it was their sincere, albeit misguided, inention to do nothing other than find whatever informtion they could to bring those who slaughtered innocent Americans to justice and to deter others from doing any further damage. No one would doubt, either, that in the wake of the horrendous slaughter of 9/11, virtually everyone was so angered that they would have thrown aside all rules and all ideals to destroy those who had anything to do with it. Neither, however, can anyone honestly and seriously claim that the techniques that were used as described in the report were in accord with the ideals that to this day are a beacon to the rest of the world.

That, in fact, is the saving grace in this otherwise dismal historical moment. All but the perverse very few agree that America is about something entirely different from, something radically averse to, the kind of cynical worldview implied by the savage mistreatment of those we hold hostage. What that same mistreatment also reveals, on the other hand, is that those with the power to order such mistreatment somehow lost their way and simply forgot what it was that they were really fighting for. Forget Dick Cheney. He is just a sick, sick man. Those who ordered and carried out this policy were and are real Americans, and, with the best of motives, they simply missed, for whatever reasons, the meaningfulness of what they were ordering, doing or allowing.

But, if they were wrong, if the waterboarding and sleep deprivation and isolation and even death does nto reflect what it is to be an American, if, as the president so acutely observed, that is not us, then the very best thing we can do in response to the report is to take a very deep look at what it means to be an American, to answer that haunting question: if that is not us, then what is us?

I have not a fraction of the intelligence and wisdom to answee that question. I can, however, make a start. We are what we say we are. We are those who hold as undeniable, as fundamental, that every human being has certain basic and inalienable rights. That means that, far from doing whatever we want to, we are the people who respect, protect and promote the basic rights of every human being. We are free, not because we have no obligations, but because we honor the rights of every human being.

Chesterton once observed that, if you really want to know something, you have to either get way inside it or else get way outside it. One way to grasp what we are, what the real meaning of being an American is, would be to find out what it is that makes so many people want to come and live here. They no doubt see our faults — our prejudices, our economic inequalities, our poverty and our crime. Beyond all of that, though, they see that we are the people that respect other people. All people. Even our enemies.

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