Protecting America's values — and Americans

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald May 01, 2009 10:34 am

It bothers me that Americans, acting on behalf of my country and therefore on behalf of me, poured water in some people’s faces to try to convince those people that they were drowning.

It bothers me, but I’m not sure it was a mistake.

My ambivalence stems largely from my inability to indulge in the fantasy that waterboarding, or any of the other unpleasant “interrogation techniques” my country has subjected certain people to over the past several years, happened simply because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are dullards and bullies.

I’m susceptible, when I ponder controversies, to a sort of peripheral vision, a condition which reminds me, with annoying persistence, that just because a lot of people shout that something is true does not mean that their truth is in fact merely one opinion among many.

If I were able to pass off America’s treatment of suspected terrorists as purely psychotic — as the equivalent to scenes from “A Clockwork Orange, for instance — I could blithely condemn the actions as beyond justification and feel comfortable that, for me at least, the matter is settled.

Trouble is, the people who have suffered at our country’s hands — and our sloshing buckets — think it’s reasonable to hijack airliners and crash them into our skyscrapers, and they would happily inflict even more terrible damage on us if they had the chance.

Anyone who refuses to consider the ramifications of this fact before expounding on the topic of America’s interrogation methods has, it seems to me, succumbed to intellectual laziness.

Many of the critics who chastise the Bush administration for employing tactics such as waterboarding insist that these acts are antithetical to the ideals upon which America was founded.

I hear much talk these days about our country’s values, and repeated references to America’s reputation as a nation of laws.

This is a tempting stance to take. People instinctively scramble to gain the moral high ground in unsavory matters such as this, and I understand the lure of resting your argument on the premise that America is too noble a place to ever mimic the brutal, if effective, ways of less enlightened lands.

The only flaw in this conclusion is the overwhelming evidence which proves it false.

That America is a great country, and one which stands, in word as well as act, for freedom and justice and against subjugation and torture, is beyond dispute.

Yet the notion that America has always rated its ideals, which are theoretical and ill-defined, as more valuable than the lives of its people, which are absolutely real, is nonsense.

It’s also naive, perhaps dangerously so.

I have always believed that our government’s most sacred duty is to protect its citizens, for the simple reason that it is hard to partake of America’s wealth of freedoms when you’re dead.

The dilemma is deciding how far we should go.

Germany was a pretty safe place to live in the 1930s, after all — but only if you could prove your lineage was in order and you looked the other way when thugs busted the windows in your Jewish neighbors’ house.

The current controversy involves America’s record since Sept. 11, 2001. When I compare that period with the rest of the country’s 233-year history it seems to me that our recent leaders have shown a greater capacity for restraint than certain of their predecessors.

I suspect the people of Dresden and Nagasaki and Hiroshima would agree with me.

In 1945, the final year of World War II, America killed hundreds of thousands of residents in those cities. I doubt any of those people, even if poured water on them, could have told us anything that would have allowed us to thwart a planned attack inside our borders.

We honored the Americans who dropped the bombs on those cities by branding them as the greatest generation. And they deserve the title.

Yet contrast the nation’s reaction to their deeds with what’s going on now.

We are again at war. Except this enemy has proved that it’s capable of hurting us in a way Hitler could only dream of.

Rather than raze a few cities, we captured some of the people who would like to kill Americans.

We put these people in cells. We fed them and clothed them and we made sure they have copies of the Koran.

And, yes, we got pretty rough with some of these prisoners — including subjecting several to waterboarding.

Yet some government officials contend (I’ve not yet seen definitive proof of this) that waterboarding elicited confessions which enabled us to prevent attacks that could have killed thousands of Americans.

President Obama told the nation the other night that he believes waterboarding is torture. The president said America’s use of the tactic “corrodes our character.”

I think he’s right.

And I agree with the president that America’s character is one of its greatest attributes, and one we ought to guard jealously.

But it seems to me important to ask who exactly has detected these blossoms of rust that have tarnished our reputation, and to wonder whether their eyesight truly is more keen than those who see America as unblemished.

I’m worried, as Mr. Obama is, about corrosion.

But I also remember that 7fi years ago, before the country’s reputation was supposedly at stake, it was Americans’ flesh and bones that were being corroded, and if we are willing now to dismiss this as trivial then I fear we have begun to lose our way.

I don’t mean to imply that I think President Obama lacks the fortitude, much less the inclination, to protect his constituents. I trust the man.

But I hope he believes as strongly as I do that dedication to saving lives is a value which Americans treasure as much as any other.

And that water, though it can spawn rust if left too long, can also be wiped away more easily, and is less likely to leave a stain, than is blood.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.