On patriotism and torture

The other day in my daily Links post, I brought attention to a Harper’s blog interview with Professor Kate Brown of Maryland University about her comparison of Guantanamo and the Soviet Gulags alongside the comment “You proud to be an American? For how much longer?” Like most Links comments, it was an off-the-cuff remark, a snark, a quick jab, but carrying with it enormous baggage.

Namely, patriotism.

One of the favorite conservative attacking points is that liberals don’t love their country. Certainly it’s true that the left tends to be less absolutist about…well…everything, including country. (I’ve written about this topic before when it comes to foreign policy, noting that a non-absolutist or liberal policy actually works compared to a simplistic, absolutist conservative one.) I do, for example, often decry events from our past policies that were wrong. Slavery and segregation. Support for Pinochet and the Shah of Iran. The invasion of Iraq. The designated hitter.

And it’s the people, friends, and places in the country I love, not the symbols and trappings. I love jazz, folk, and rock, but could care less for the colors blue, white, and red: I prefer orange and green. I love climbing Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, the Cascades in Washington, and the Bitterroots in Montana. I don’t own a single American eagle belt buckle although I nearly got clocked by a real eagle near Washington’s Mount Baker. I’ve lived in other countries – and to be honest, people are pretty much the same wherever you go: generous, greedy, caring, fearful, prejudiced, irrational, and affectionate. There are unique characteristics to Americans that I prefer: I love our informality and spontaneity, resourcefulness and optimism. But…is that because I’m American, and those are the traits I value? I prefer German produce and beer. I like Krakow, Poland, better than Springfield, Massachusetts, or Hartford, Connecticut. I prefer Montana to them all.

It all boils down to one question: what is a country, exactly?

But there’s one thing that’s clear, there’s one aspect of my country that I can point to and say without a doubt, there’s one unequivocally good thing about this country I love, and that’s its political structure: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the everyday democratic possibilities that come with it. To me that’s what America is about, that’s what makes me proud to be an American.

I think that’s what hit me about Dave Neiwert’s post on torture. It’s this sense that the Bush administration – and the GOP by standing by – is actively hacking away at the one, clear attribute of the United States that is demonstrably, absolutely positive.

Forget the stolen 2000 election or the Diebold vote-tampering. Think about Bush’s attacks on the fabric of our Constitution, the changes he’s making to centuries of democratic legal traditions. The signing statements, the Patriot Act, the undeclared war in Iraq, warrantless wiretapping, domestic spying, “enemy combatant” status, rendition, secret prisons, and torture.


The baseline problem with torture, after all, is that it is prima facie immoral, a violation not just of the Golden Rule and basic Christian precepts, but of nearly any system of ethics. Even the most hard-nosed rationalist will come to this conclusion (see, e.g., Kant’s Categorical Imperative). It’s an obvious one if you’re a Christian.All you have to present to any Christian, when it comes to torture, is their own favorite moral-guidepost aphorism: What Would Jesus Do?

To anyone familiar not just with Jesus’ teachings but the story of his martyrdom — including his torture at the hands of authorities — the answer is crystal clear.


Republicans, of course, want it to be a question of toughness: Are we willing to do “what it takes” to defeat terrorists?

But torture is not “toughness.” It is in fact a sign of weakness — particularly the moral kind.

It is, in the end, a moral issue, and one drawn in stark black and white. As the late Joan Fitzpatrick put it: The torturer is the enemy of mankind.

Unlike, say, patriotism or foreign policy, there is nothing equivocal about torture. It violates the principles at the heart of our legal system. It doesn’t work. It is bad. In any form, whether you’re ripping out fingernails or water boarding.

As Neiwert points out, morality has long been the main tool in the conservative toolbox to manipulate votes. So there’s a little uneasiness among progressives to make torture a moral issue. But it is a moral issue – a clear moral issue.

So, yes, Bush’s policies are making me ashamed of being an American and destroying the one thing I love without reserve about the country. With the whittling away of Constitutional rights and by his placing the state above the individual, the President is destroying our political system.

I could rail against the administration and Congress, but really it’s you and me who are responsible for who’s in office and why these people aren’t being held accountable. And by “you,” I do also mean journalists and campaign staff and DC insiders and activists. Have you put your political party above your ethics? Have you put re-election over principle? Are you putting journalistic ethics and profit ahead of morality? There comes a time when you have to make a stand.

Now is the time. If you love your country. Speak your mind.


  1. You’re right — torture is definitely a moral issue. So is hunger, poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, global warming — everything this administration is doing is a moral issue. We need to move the morality debate up to a level that includes these things and call these guys out on their policies and actions. If they continue to stand on moral issues to try to win elections, we’ll just have to knock their feet out from under them.

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