The U.S. Senate, following a wonderful American tradition, adopted a resolution this week expressing “the most solemn regrets of the Senate” for blocking anti-lynching legislation for some 85 years while more than 4,700 people were tortured and killed at the hands of mobs and vigilantes.
This really is a great and compassionate nation, even if it often takes us a few generations to in some formal way expiate our guilt for allowing unspeakable deeds to be done in our name or without our strong objection. We are in the last vestiges of atonement for imprisoning innocent Americans of Japanese descent in wartime more than 60 years ago.
But how nobler and truer to our principles would it be if we performed the acknowledgment and the contrition for the wrongs when we discover them. It is awkward and hard, as the country is discovering with the abuse and murder of Muslim prisoners in U.S. war camps, and that atonement is not going to happen soon. The Bush administration tells us that this is no time for hand wringing because it betrays weakness before the enemy, whoever and wherever he is.
The Senate for nearly a century blocked laws outlawing lynching because to do so would cast a slur on a region where good people lived and law-abiding lawmen operated. Besides, many if not most of the victims were probably egregious lawbreakers, “bad people,” as Vice President Cheney this week called the Muslims who passed through or are detained still at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and subjected to special interrogation techniques.
When John Carter was tortured and lynched and his body mutilated and dragged through the cheering streets of Little Rock in 1927 civic leaders explained afterward that the acts reflected on a small minority and not on the mostly law-abiding people in town, but no one was ever charged with the crime.
Likewise, it resolves nothing to acknowledge today that the mistreatment of prisoners of war does not sully the honor of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have fought valiantly in Afghanistan and Iraq and while doing it upheld the high calling of their country.
Despite some mild expressions of regret, even from the Bush administration, we are not close to coming to grips with the horrors committed in our name at prison camps in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba or those in cooperating foreign countries that are not obliged to observe the little civilities of war. Congress has not begun a single investigation of torture in military prisons — merely to suggest it would call a senator’s patriotism into public question.
Joseph Lelyveld, the former editor of the New York Times, suggested in a magazine piece Sunday that the country at least conduct its own inner dialogue about the extent of deprivation or coercion that is morally acceptable for interrogators to commit in the name of the country that strives to be the world’s moral exemplar.
We can all agree that the sadistic torture and murder of a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver known as Dilawar by U.S. interrogators at Bagram prison in Afghanistan was beyond the pale. It turned out he was totally innocent as were hundreds if not thousands of other long-term detainees. But what about the case of a 14-year-old boy from Chad who was captured in Afghanistan and who is still at Guantanamo? His account to a lawyer was that he was hanged by his wrists from a ceiling hook for days, beaten, burned by a cigarette, shackled to the floor with Western music blaring and lights in his face for hours and shown pictures of naked women and adult sex videos in a place at Guantanamo known as the Love Shack. He could enjoy the latter, he was told, if he confessed to things. His pain never reached that of death or organ failure, the standard set by the famous Bush torture rule, so is that tolerable?
The closest thing to recognition and redemption is the call by some in Congress and by former Presidents Carter and Clinton that Guantanamo be closed, not because the prison represents anything un-American but because to close it would improve the country’s public relations.
“It’s identifiable with, for right or wrong, a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around, we do it our way, we don’t live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). So we should close it and remove a recruiting icon for terrorists, he says.
Locally, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette scoffed at such maundering, especially coming from Jimmy Carter. Do you think the Taliban or Saddam Hussein would show our men any deference? If Americans are better than beheaders and terrorists, that is all that matters.
People are kept at Guantanamo without any legal or basic human rights until the war on terrorism ends. If it lasts another 50 years or more and they all die in prison without charges ever being brought, the Democrat-Gazette said, all that we owe them is “suitable burial, with all religious rites duly observed.”
When we are in a fine war with Muslims then, that is all that America needs to stand for.
We’ll take another look at it in 50 years.