It was yet another report of the U.S. government’s participation in human-rights abuses. On Sunday, 60 Minutes reported on the CIA’s practice of kidnapping terror suspects and flying them to places of torture. According to CBS, more than 100 people have disappeared under a CIA practice called “rendition.” Masked men in an unmarked jet seize their target, cut off his clothes, put him in a blindfold and jumpsuit, tranquilize him, and fly him away, often to a prison in Egypt or Jordan infamous for torture. The tactic has been effective in extracting information, a former CIA official says. But is it the American way?
In this macho world of Donald Rumsfeld, I know it’s unfashionable to be squeamish about tactics in the global war against terror. The argument is that we, as good guys, have to take out the bad guys before they get us. But how far will the American people allow the government to go before becoming disgusted with the use of immoral tactics in the name of freedom? Recent polls report a low approval rating for George W. Bush and his conduct of the war in Iraq. And polls show that many Americans are unconvinced that the war in Iraq has reduced the threat of terrorism. Is the growing disenchantment only about Bush’s lack of effectiveness? Or are people beginning to wonder whether the United States is forgetting who it is and what it stands for?
In the inaugural Paul Simon Essay, published in the May edition of Illinois Issues, University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain argues persuasively that morality has always been at the heart of Americans’ self-understanding and that religion forms the soul of its politics. This was true when the colonists opposed the English king for interfering with rights “endowed by the Creator.” Slavery denied the moral equality of all persons in the eyes of God, and so had to be rooted out. Denying women the right to vote didn’t make heavenly sense, either, and, because God is watching, suffrage was extended. “This is not a matter of blurring church and state,” Elshtain explains. “Church and state are not synonymous to religion and politics. We keep the first pair separate; we put the second pair together all of the time.”
Well, so what if America considers itself a moral and religious nation? What difference does it make? “The difference religiously derived morality makes,” replies the essayist, “is that it is more likely to get us up and out of the house and into civic life than the alternative of no religious connection.” In other words, we care because God cares. The second difference? “Those engaged in civic life on the basis of moral imperatives are more likely to articulate reasons for engagement that go beyond self-interest.” Care and concern for others is essential to “forestall a slide into isolating individualism and sustain the hope that, in turn, nourishes civic life.”
I agree that in America a deep sense of morality, derived largely from religion, drives politics and policy. But we all know that it can drive them badly and that politicians may exploit good intentions. In Elshtain’s 2003 book Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, she makes a moral case for military engagement against the enemies of freedom. Sounding like a Bush clone, she writes, “They loathe us because of who we are and what our society represents. We must and will fight. . . to defend who we are and what we, at our best, represent.”
Two years ago many Americans felt, like Elshtain, that we were fighting for freedom and democracy out of concern for oppressed people. By now, many good Americans are beginning to think that morality was just a cover. We are becoming more like the enemy, acting out of concern only for ourselves. Abduction and torture are not proper ways to defend what we, at our best, represent.