Guantanamo, Manning & the Myth of Patriotism

In response to Daniel Ellsberg’s post ‘The Shameful Abuse of Bradley Manning‘.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” Dostoyevsky

There are many critics of the United States who trace its moral decline from the end of the Second World War. This is not unreasonable. The emergence of the Cold War saw the US engage in dubious adventurism all over the globe. From its involvement in Vietnam, its participation in the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, its support of the Shah in Iran, to its invasion of Iraq, the US has behaved like the empire it is. And like all empires, it’s done very questionable things abroad.

However, it is one thing for an empire to behave like a mad elephant abroad, and something entirely different to pull itself apart internally. I see 9/11 as the trigger of a different kind of misbehaviour. A kind of moral cannibalism that has done greater damage than all its misguided efforts abroad.

Something changed after 9/11. It changed at the very apex of the power structure. Perhaps it was just that George W. Bush was not intellectually capable of giving grave consideration to how the Al Qaeda threat should be represented and conceived of in the mind of the people of the US. Perhaps it was simply easier to respond to the tragedy by declaring a ‘War on Terror’?

Perhaps it was that Bush, just like the rest of the population, had been so utterly infected by a culture and psychology of consumerism that whatever the response should be, it had to be something that would stand out on the shelf. Something packaged in bright, patriotic colours. Something easy to market and easy to grasp for a population who can’t seem to tolerate a news report that takes more than 3 minutes to consume.

However it came about, the result was a country with a drastically shifted moral landscape. A country that was willing to legalize and legitimize behaviour that, 20 years before, would have had to remain secret and covert.

It wasn’t that the United States had never tortured people or held them in awful conditions before. It’s that they could not do so publicly, because it was considered that the greater part of the American people would not tolerate it. Until very recently, the people of the US have seen themselves as obliged to present a higher moral standard to the world than other nations. It has prided itself on a constitution that aggressively protects the rights of the individual. America has, in the past, wanted to be seen as a fair, compassionate and just people. But to maintain this requires a population that can see beyond the three-minute sound bite. A population who, though angry and reactive in the moment, have the capacity to consider the long-term ramifications of legalizing uncivilized behavior.

Under the Bush administration, the Office of Legal Counsel contorted the laws of territoriality, of due process and America’s legal relationship with the Third Geneva convention into unrecognizable things.

It created the legal plausibility of a extra-territorial black hole in Guantanamo to serve the purposes of the administration. It legalized and legitimized the mistreatment of prisoners that went on there, and at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and in the prisons of Iraq.  It indemnified senior members of the administration, the military and the CIA against prosecution for breaches in what, until very recently, have been hard and fast rules on the treatment of captured enemies.

And the population of the United States went along with this. Yes, there were people who protested it. But the majority of Americans re-elected the people who did this. It tolerated the imposition of the Patriot Act. It was, for the most part, the silent and acquiescent witness to the disemboweling of its own constitution.

It is immaterial whether many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were rabid terrorists or innocent. It is immaterial whether Bradley Manning is a brave whistle-blower or a damnable traitor. What the Obama administration has done in allowing Guantanamo Bay to stay open and tolerating the mistreatment of Private Manning, is to ratify a fundamental change in the moral structure of America.

And so Al Qaeda has gone some way to achieving its aim to destroy the fabric of American society. But not without the complicity of those great American patriots who swore to uphold the constitution of their country and the inviolate moral superiority of its citizens. And the proof that is has done so lies in the fact that anyone who points this out is accused of being unpatriotic.

Moreover, I have to wonder why so many more Americans are surprised that a government, once it gives itself permission to act with overt immorality to others, would not then turn around and do so to one of its own citizens?

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