Five Gears in Reverse: The Cold War and Modern Moral Cowardice

Perhaps it was the end of the Cold War that did it. After all, it's been almost 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. You'd have to be well over thirty to remember the feel of those times, and what's more, to be steeped in the unspoken assumptions that pervaded the era. Whole generations have been raised up now for whom the mores of that time, good and bad, are little more than nostalgic fashions to pick and choose from -- or simply discard -- as they assemble their ideological wardrobe for the present day. This is inevitable and natural -- and a good thing on the whole, given the many monstrosities perpetrated by both sides in the actually-pretty-hot Cold War, in which millions died around the world. (Although not within the boundaries of the two main protagonists. Why die when others can do it for you?)

However, considering the massive indifference with which most Americans have greeted the barbaric mores of our new Terror War era -- the systematic practice of torture, rendition, indefinite detention, assassination, concentration camps, secret prisons, executive dictatorship and multiple slaughter of the innocent -- it could be that the fading of some of those old Cold War assumptions might indeed play a significant part in the public acceptance -- and in many cases, enthusiastic championing -- of these degradations.

We speak here not of government policy during the Cold War -- which obviously embraced most if not all of the misdeeds enumerated above, and more besides (to which the millions of war-spawned graves in Southeast Asia bear silent testimony) -- but of the attitudes of ordinary people: the private beliefs and assumptions that were shaped by the decades-long rivalry with the Soviet Union. (Again, the fact that many of these beliefs were unexamined, uncritical, and at times completely baseless, is not the point here.)

One of the chief molders of the political mindset of ordinary people during the Cold War was the firm, fundamental belief that "we are not like them" -- that what sets us apart, what gives us the high moral ground in the conflict is that we do not do the sinister things that the Soviets do. We don't have gulags like they do. We don't have concentration camps and secret prisons. We don't jail people without charges. We don't torture people like they do. We don't have secret agents snatching people off the streets and throwing them into dungeons, like the KGB does. Our mail is not opened. Our private organizations are not infiltrated. Our homes cannot be raided without a warrant. Our leaders don't exalt themselves beyond the law, like the Communist tyrants. We don't have huge propaganda mills smearing enemies of the state and supporting every contradictory twist and turn in government policy. And whenever it turned out that "we" were in fact doing something like "they" do, it would produce a genuine and painful cognitive dissonance -- and sometimes even a political reaction, such as the restraints put on executive authority during the 1970s after the egregious abuses of the CIA, the Pentagon, the FBI and the White House were revealed. [An example of the popular reaction could be seen in the way that FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover went from unassailable national hero (straight-shooting crimebuster) to national joke (cross-dressing blackmailer) virtually overnight.]

However misinformed this fundamental belief might have been in many respects -- in regard to both the Soviet Union and the West -- its pervasiveness during the Cold War remained a potent weapon for those who sought to put a brake on state tyranny and curb abuses of America's Constitutional liberties and universal human rights. "That sounds like something them Commies would do!" -- This was an argument that had resonance in what we call today, in our degraded parlance, "the heartland." I know because I heard it myself from old farmers sitting around the stove at my grandfather's feed store in the rural South. You could hear it on the streets and in the churches. You could read it in the letters pages of the state and local newspapers. Having defined themselves against this dreaded Other, most ordinary people did not want to see their own nation partaking of the Other's attributes (real or imagined).

And so the feeling that these attributes -- tyranny, torture, slavish obedience, surveillance, etc. -- were utterly un-American became deeply worked into the national psyche. (Or large quadrants of it.) But this is obviously not true anymore. The well-attested, well-publicized and manifold abuses of the Bush Administration have evoked scarcely a ripple of complaint from the American people, much less the kind of political reaction that enabled the Church Committee, the Pike Committee and other top-level investigations to roll back some of the rank abuses of power that had corrupted the American system. As Arthur Silber, Norman Solomon and many others have pointed out, even the current public opposition to the Iraq War -- which is actually quite tepid, confined largely to ticking a box on an opinion poll -- is due largely to the "failure" of the Bush Administration to produce a quick and easy "victory," and not to the howling moral obscenity of the attempted conquest itself. The Democrats have obviously recognized the essential softness of the national anti-war sentiment, and have trimmed their sails accordingly, knowing there will be no price to pay for the rank mendacity of their craven sell-out to Bush on funding the slaughter in Iraq. [Cindy Sheehan has also taken notice of this, and has now quit the organized anti-war movement, despairing of its egotistic in-fighting and its robotic defense of the do-nothing Democrats.]

But even this muffled resistance to the Iraq War stands out like a full-scale revolution in comparison to the pin-dropping silence that has met the transformation of the United States into an open champion of the crudest sort of police-state tactics. Right now, the government is trying an American citizen -- Jose Padilla -- who was snatched by secret agents, imprisoned for years without charges, subjected to exquisite refinements of torture and finally driven insane. And he is only being prosecuted now -- on minor charges -- because the Bush Administration wanted to head off a direct court challenge to its "enemy combatant" decrees, its assertion of autocratic power over the life and liberty of every American citizen -- indeed, over every inhabitant of the world.

Of course, Padilla is just the tip of a massive, blood-smeared iceberg. We don't know exactly how many people are now chained up in Bush's secret prisons, or what happens to them, or how many people he has simply had killed. (He openly boasted of his assassinations before a national TV audience in the State of the Union address in 2003, as we've noted here several times.) But what we do know is damning enough -- yet it has not been damned. In 2004, the Democratic candidate running to unseat Bush's loathsome regime did not even mention the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, much the less the far greater and far wider torture regimen instigated at Bush's express orders. One of the most flagrant stains on the national honor in America's history, exposed mere months before the vote -- and it was not even an issue in the election. Nor was the existence of a concentration camp -- an American concentration camp -- at Guantanamo Bay an issue in the 2004 election -- or in the 2006 election for that matter. The Democrats in Congress could close Gitmo tomorrow if they wanted to, just as they could roll back some of the worst of Bush's autocratic encroachments simply by overturning the infamous "Military Commissions Act." But they have done neither; nor is there any public pressure compelling them to act on these issues. Although isolated patriots like Henry Waxman soldier on with investigations, there will be no equivalent of the broad-ranging, high-profile Church and Pike Committees to shovel away some of the mountain of shit that Bush and his accomplices have heaped upon the Constitution.

(Continued after the jump.)

And so the abuses go on. On Monday, as the nation honored its war dead for what was everywhere called their sacrifices for freedom, the Guardian reported on the latest twist in the long, sordid tale of Guantanamo captive Jamil el-Banna (which we reported on earlier here: Deeper Into Darkness: Slavery and Betrayal in Bush's Gulag). Banna, a UK citizen, has been held in Gitmo for more than four and a half years. He was snatched in Africa by the Americans after British intelligence gave the CIA false information about him. They were trying to force him into becoming an informant on Muslim activities in Britain; when that didn't work, they gave him over to the Americans, who have held him -- and tortured him -- without charges all this time. Now, years after they knew he had been captured on false evidence, the Americans have finally cleared him for release -- one of hundreds of the "worst of the worst" in Gitmo who turned out to be completely innocent -. But Bush's little bulldog, Tony Blair, refuses to allow Banna back into the UK, threatening to send him instead to his native Jordan -- from which Banna escaped in 1994 after being tortured by the American-allied regime there. The Guardian notes:

This month Mr Banna was seen in Guantánamo by his lawyer, Zachary Katznelson from the group Reprieve. According to Mr Katznelson's transcript of the meeting, seen by the Guardian, Mr Banna said: "The British government has let me stay here for four and a half years. What crime did I commit? Together with the Americans, they have kept me from my children. They have deprived me of the chance to see them grow up, to hold them, to kiss them, to laugh with them, to play with them. There is no way to turn back time, to give me back those moments." During the visit, Mr Banna was allowed to watch a home video of his children, including his first sighting of his four-year-old daughter Maryam...

Speaking from Guantánamo, while shackled to the floor, Mr Banna said: "I have always told the truth. I have no information about terrorism. I've said since the very first day: put me on trial anywhere at any time. I will gladly stand up and tell my story. And I know that a fair court would set me free. But there is no chance of that here in Guantánamo. There is no justice here." Mr Banna said his diabetes is not being treated and his sight is deteriorating....During the visit Mr Banna also said that letters from his children were taking up to 16 months to reach him....

The [UK] government has maintained a position that it has no obligation to help British residents held by the US in Guantánamo.

And so here is where we are, here is what is quietly accepted -- when it is not enthusiastically embraced: a system where innocent men are kidnapped by secret agents then kept imprisoned, chained and abused for years on end, without charges, with only the barest minimum of grudgingly granted and increasingly restricted legal representation, then threatened with a new "rendition" to the torture chambers of faithful allies. Where American citizens can be snatched, imprisoned and tortured into madness at the arbitrary order of the national leader, who can subject any citizen to this process simply by declaring them -- again, arbitrarily -- an "enemy combatant." It is staggering for someone who came of age during the Cold War to see the United States and Britain turning into a sort of modern-dress version of East Germany.

The realities outlined above are precisely the kind of thing that the good old boys down at the feed store would have likened to "something them Commies might do." And a goodly proportion of such "heartlanders" indeed responded favorably when national politicians had the courage to cast the abuses of that era in such terms, i.e., as something inimical to American ideals, American identity. That movement was soon washed away, of course, primarily by the blowback from decades of bipartisan imperial gamesmanship - in this case, the Iranian revolution, the inevitable result of 30 years of American-sponsored repression by the Shah, whose brutal regime had been implanted by the Americans after a CIA "regime change" black op destroyed Iran's secular democracy in 1953. Jimmy Carter, like the rest of the American Establishment, was fanatically - and stupidly - devoted to the corrupt and vicious Iranian despot; and for his sins, Carter was given the hostage crisis that crippled his presidency and foredoomed him to defeat by the Reagan-Bush gang.

These newly empowered militarists dealt only in the darkest Cold War tropes, those which held that "anything goes" in the savage quest for world dominance. Ironically, the Rightists didn't define themselves in opposition to the Soviet Union, because they approved of so many of the Soviets' methods.  There was actually very little ideological content in the Reagan-Bush militarists' opposition to the Soviet Union. They didn't really care what the Soviets stood for or didn't stand for, or what they did or didn't do; they just found the Soviets useful as a big bogeyman to "scare the hell out of the American people" and thus skew the system for the benefit of their own war-profiteering clique. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, they found other bogeymen: first the regime of Saddam Hussein that they had just spent a decade supporting, then the Islamic extremists whom they had also supported during those same years. (So you see, there was a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda after all; they were both pampered favorites of the militarist Right.)

This idea of Cold War mores acting as an impediment to the open embrace of tyranny, torture and terror by the government cannot be pushed too far, of course. While it was almost certainly a contributing factor in emboldening the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate Democrats to enact some reforms, it was obviously not the only one. And the present-day acquiescence to Bush's new "United Stasi of America" system cannot be put down solely to the loss of that automatic, almost unconscious revulsion to anything that smacked of Soviet-style tyranny (or its forerunner in the popular mind, fascist tyranny).

But it is a fact that we now have generations who came of age (or to political awareness) only after the dark militarists (and their off-shoot, the "militarists lite" of the Clinton Administration and the Democratic Leadership Council) seized the zeitgeist. And without the touchstone of that widespread internal bias against tyranny to draw upon, those who uphold the Constitution, the rule of law and common decency now have to expend enormous amounts of energy arguing about issues that should have been settled long ago. There should not even be a debate over the "proper" use of torture, over whether we should "waterboard" captives or not. There should not even be a debate about the president's "right" to ignore the laws passed by Congress with "signing statements," executive orders and secret directives. There should not even be a debate over secret, unrestricted government surveillance into every aspect of our lives. There should not even be a debate about maintaining a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, or holding people captive for years on end without charges and genuine due process. There should not even be a debate about launching a war of aggression against a nation that had not attacked us - and continuing that war after grinding the conquered land into ruins, displacing and degrading millions of its citizens, and killing more than 650,000 innocent people.

There shouldn't be a debate on any of these issues in America, or in Britain, or in any country that calls itself civilized, that calls itself a democracy, that calls itself free. But we have been forced into this humiliating position, in part because we have lost something in the national character - some kind of bedrock morality - that we still possessed, at least vestigially, even in the miasmic Seventies. It seems to have been replaced by a moral and physical cowardice that I never thought I would see in the United States.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Those who defend the new, open authoritarianism do so because "9/11 changed everything." The events of that day, we are told, justify the evisceration of the Constitution, the militarization of society, torture, indefinite detention, aggressive war and hundreds of thousands of instances of "collateral damage." Because we must do "whatever it takes" to prevent the Islamists from hurting us again, or even taking over our entire country.

Of course, most if not all of the politicians who make hay of this fearmongering -- Bush, Cheney, Guiliani, Lieberman, etc. -- don't really believe it; if they did, they would not avidly pursue and support policies that are guaranteed to increase the threat of terrorism by several magnitudes. (Although their cheerleaders in the wingnut blogosphere really do believe it; they really do quake in fear at the thought of big bad Muslims coming to get them, and they are more than willing to sacrifice the Constitution -- and the lives of an unlimited number of American soldiers and foreign civilians -- to keep themselves safe and cozy at their keyboards.) But the cowardice that the politicians play upon obviously has some resonance in the wider public (in addition to the wingnut bootlicking fringe), and must account at least in some degree for the widespread indifference to the ongoing murder of the Republic. The internal touchstone of anti-tyranny has been replaced by a touchstone of fear.

Again, all of this is passing strange to anyone who lived through a substantial portion of the Cold War. For decades, the genuine threat of imminent destruction hung over our heads, consciously and unconsciously permeating every moment of existence. The force that threatened us (or seemed to; as anyone who's read James Carroll's House of War knows, the real history of those years shows that it was the United States that came closest to launching world-ending nuclear holocausts during that time) was one of the most powerful and well-armed states in the history of the world, fully capable of annihilating millions of Americans in an instant, and standing in the vanguard of a movement that controlled more than half the world's population.

Yet in the face of this very real existential threat, American liberties actually expanded enormously over the decades of the Cold War; the Civil Rights movement is only one example. America was able to absorb and embrace tremendous stresses of social and political change even with the dagger of nuclear war pointed squarely at its heart. Americans were able to stop an unjust war, bring down a criminal president and put fetters on government power -- and still preserve their "national security" from the greatest danger it had ever known.

Yet today, we are told that we must "curtail" our liberties, countenance evil practices ("the dark side, if you will," as Dick Cheney calls it), give the government unfettered power, ignore the open lawbreaking of the president, and continue an unjust war…because of the threat posed by a collection of small, scattered, isolated groups of religious primitives, often at each other's throats, despised by their own co-religionists for their murderous perversions of the faith, and unable to gain a foothold in any country that has not been brought to ruin or chaos by the geopolitical games of the major powers. The fact that cynical power-seekers and war profiteers have been able to inflate this deadly but minor scourge into a globe-straddling monster capable of destroying the United States and enslaving its people speaks volumes about the timorousness that has entered America's national character. It is as if a man who once had fought off an angry lion with his bare hands was now frightened to death of a rabid cat.

In the end, of course, it doesn't matter where the combination of cowardice, ignorance and belligerence that has characterized the American character in the 21st century comes from. It is here, it is our reality, our shame -- and our responsibility.