Introduction: A post-9/11 conversation I once had…
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on America, I found myself debating a conservative young friend I’d made when I was a graduate student in Iowa. He was surprised to learn that I was not among the roughly 90% of Americans, including himself, who approved of Bush’s response to al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks directed at the heart of American economic, political, and military force projection.
While he was gung ho, I was alarmed at Mr. Bush’s swaggering unilateralism, ambitious agenda (eyeing Baghdad from the start), and blustering rhetoric, including his “crusade” slip and the “smoke ‘em out of their caves” and “dead or alive” blather (I felt such rhetoric was both infantile and dangerous, but I was clearly in the minority). I had watched aghast as the U.S. Congress, swept up in war fever, passed the open-ended “use of force” resolution with only one “nay” vote (Rep. Barbara Lee’s), enabling the Bush administration to rush off and start empowering brutal warlords and drug lords in Afghanistan (hell-bent on war, Bush had refused to even consider the Taliban’s repeated offers to apprehend Osama bin Laden for us and deliver him to justice).
“But we’ve got to respond!” my friend insisted.
“Definitely,” I answered, “but not this way. This reaction is exactly what al Qaeda was hoping for.”
“bin Laden was hoping we’d come kick his ass for him???”
I proceeded to make my case that the appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks would’ve involved: 1) taking responsibility for America’s role in creating the Taliban and al Qaeda in the first place; 2) acknowledging and redressing the Afghan people’s legitimate grievances (for instance, by leading an international effort to remove the millions of land mines littering the landscape ever since our proxy war with the Soviets in the 1980s); 3) embracing multilateralism and the world’s efforts to show solidarity with us (from the U.K. to Iran); and 4) adhering rigidly to the rule of law, proving our values and rebutting bin Laden’s indictment of us.
If we’d responded in this way, I argued, we could have isolated the extremists responsible for 9/11, increasing the chance that they would be brought to justice — with the least amount of human suffering and without degrading civil liberties or our Constitution. It could have been a truly shining moment for America’s professed values, paving the way for a far more peaceful world than the one we’re living in today (and it would’ve been EASY; back then, the whole world was sympathetic to the United States and offering assistance).
But my friend didn’t see it. He didn’t see how — after flooding Afghanistan in the ‘80s with arms and thousands of violent, foreign jihadis like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (in order to lure the Soviets and “give them their Vietnam”) — we maybe owed it to the people of Afghanistan to try to apprehend al Qaeda’s leaders without bombing and occupying their nation for years to come (who could have guessed how many years?).
He didn’t find persuasive the argument that we had used the Af-Pak region (as a Pakistani general described it a few years later) “like a condom” and left a power vacuum in the region that made the Taliban’s rise all but inevitable (for, despite their draconian ways, the majority of Afghan citizens actually did prefer them to the brutal warlords and drug lords they eventually defeated and expelled from the country).
Were innocent people in the crosshairs? Too bad, they shouldn’t have attacked us — or harbored the people who did! (Or so my friend had reasoned at the time.)
It was only a few years later, after the Iraq debacle had begun to unfold, that my young friend began to see that Bush wasn’t exactly Mr. Competent. Discussing that war, I found my friend more receptive to the argument that Bush’s entire 9/11 response had, in fact, made America considerably less secure (and on virtually every front). I was able to give him some fairly cogent examples: our allies in Madrid and London having been attacked by al Qaeda; the number of global terrorist incidents — especially those targeting Americans — having skyrocketed; the huge hits America’s treasury and international credibility had already taken…
Only during that second visit (the one that took place a few years after 9/11, rather than mere weeks) my young Iowan friend was not alone. This time he had brought along a buddy, freshly enlisted in the U.S. Marines. His friend was mostly quiet, letting us engage and discuss as we had once done on a regular basis (clashing in good-natured fashion over morality, ethics, and basic good sense — before the nation’s troubles had come to the fore). Yet his taciturn friend did volunteer one thing: “I enlisted in the Marines because I want to know what it’s like to kill someone,” he admitted, “and not be in trouble for it, not go to jail or anything” (no exaggeration, that’s what he told me).
I was flabbergasted. “But what about the justice of your actions?” I wanted to know. I informed him that Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks. The Bush folks had fabricated the WMD and “al Qaeda-Iraq connection” claims, the majority of which had been debunked in real time, before the war was even launched (only that wasn’t the story the media was interested in covering; they had a bogus case for war to sell).
This fresh Marine recruit was also curious about my morality. “But what about once you’re in a war? Then whose side are you on? If you’re right there, and it’s us versus them?” That gave me pause, picturing myself in some kind of trench, I suppose, with a bunch of good ole’ American faces all around me and the bullets flying… I conceded that if I ever found myself in such a situation, I supposed I would be on the side of my countrymen — but that there was no reason it should have come to that, least of all in this particular case!
Conclusion: Without empathy, we simply fight in packs, lacking any principles or worthy cause.
And that’s where real moral of the story crystallizes for me. My friend’s Marine buddy — like my friend himself, a few years earlier, discussing Afghanistan — could not trouble himself with questions of justice. Ready to kill, he could not be bothered to worry about how millions of innocent Iraqis would be affected by our war (just as my Iowan friend couldn’t really work up any sympathy for the Afghan people, during that other discussion, a few years previous).
And that’s precisely where America has gone wrong. We’ve forgotten that wars don’t mean anything — or accomplish any positive result — when they’re fought in an unprincipled fashion, without any true concern for the justice of one’s cause. We’ve forgotten that “winning” means nothing when the victor has forsaken his most cherished values and, ultimately, degraded his humanity (by rejecting the natural human impulse to EMPATHIZE with one’s fellow living beings, especially other human beings).
“We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.” — General Barry McCaffrey (from Glenn Greenwald’s 2009 article, “The Suppressed Fact: Deaths by U.S. Torture”)
Per even the U.S. military’s own reports, America (DoD-CIA) tortured dozens of detainees to death in the years following 9/11. Most cases have not resulted in any charges and several were not even investigated (no autopsy, even). I was personally present at a congressional hearing in 2008 when retired Marine Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, testified that he had seen documents indicating that America had tortured to death over a hundred detainees in our custody. He later revised that number upward, indicating that the figure is probably closer to 200 individuals — that’s some 200 human beings that America tortured to death under George W. Bush (the vast majority likely innocent, a la Dilawar the taxi driver, one of the first people America detained and subsequently murdered after 9/11, casually and sadistically, for no good reason).
And now we know that no one will be held responsible for these crimes. The New York Times recently reported that — despite documentation that the United States under George W. Bush repeatedly tortured detainees to death — there will be ZERO legal consequences for the perpetrators or the policymakers responsible. Worse yet, although most Americans have apparently gone to sleep on the subject, rendition and torture continue under the present administration (only following a slightly different protocol, generally, involving proxy torturers carrying out U.S. orders, with the Americans often, simply, standing just outside of the door, directing).
* * *
This series began with a conversation about some of the individuals and institutions that have systematically shielded serial child rapists over the years, simply to save themselves from bad publicity. I offered two recent, notorious examples of such conduct, Penn State and the Vatican, observing that, like many a pedophiliac priest, Penn State’s chronic child molester, Jerry Sandusky, was allowed to continue raping and sexually assaulting children for well over a decade — while others in his circle covered up his crimes.
I then turned the conversation to Libor manipulation and America’s essentially genocidal foreign policy in the Middle East, observing how Wall Street and the neocons — with their endless, boundless criminal predations and sociopathic behavior — are essentially like Sandusky and the pedophile priests: they relentlessly commit egregious criminal offenses while the powers that be shield them.
As I type these words, the neocons’ Syria policy has sparked a bloody civil war that — in August alone — forced more than 100,000 refugees out of the country. America (make no mistake: AMERICA) is doing to Syrians today what we did to Iraqis yesterday and Afghanistan the day before that. The children and innocents are suffering in the millions, and Americans continue to sit on their hands… when they’re not actually applauding the slaughter, that is (or at least applauding the policy, cheering for empire’s “rebels”).
[To be clear: It would be a mistake to construe my opposition to America's recent wars as support for Assad or Qaddafi or the Taliban -- any more than opposition to the Iraq War meant that one "supported" Saddam Hussein. This is about principle... and it’s about pragmatism. Beyond their illegality, the neocons’ policies are immoral and highly impractical, generally achieving the opposite of their stated aims -- because their only true aims are to feed the MIC and spread/perpetuate the totalitarian, global surveillance state. Those are their only values, and as long as we make them our values, we can not be expected to endure as a great nation (as indeed we’re failing right now, by ignoring our laws, our crumbling infrastructure, and proven threats to our security, like exploding healthcare costs and the climate catastrophe that’s upon us).]
So, the world and its institutions are complicit — just as Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are complicit when it comes to the crimes of the neoconservatives (which they’ve mostly continued). Our political parties and leading institutions do precisely as Archbishop/Cardinal/Pope Ratzinger and Coach Paterno did: they actively cover up monstrous crimes, shield the criminals, and facilitate future horrors. Millions of innocents suffer and die while our leaders continue to pontificate about America’s “values” to an increasingly skeptical world.
Our true credo: WE DO NOT CHARGE ELITE CRIMINALS, NOR SHALL WE — EVER. SO DON’T ROCK THE BOAT AND DON’T YOU DARE BLOW THE WHISTLE ON THEIR CRIMES (for that’s the one official act we still prosecute!).
But this series was never intended to be an empty exercise in moralizing and high dudgeon; IT WAS INTENDED TO BE A WARNING: All that we have visited on the world — demonstrating a considerable dearth of human compassion and empathy — will surely be revisited upon us in the years ahead. Even if you don’t know or care about the many millions of victims of American policy in recent decades, you should care about that little law of human physics: What goes around comes around.
And that, my friends, is why evolution/God equipped us with EMPATHY in the first place: it’s not just morally satisfying; it’s what we need to survive.