America did a terrible thing. But America is a democracy, and democracies hold people accountable for their misdeeds. So once the truth began to come out, by way of the terrible photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the formal mechanisms of accountability lurched into action. The low-level military police who committed those documented outrages were tried and convicted. But the special operations soldiers who committed repeated atrocities at secret facilities in Iraq received nothing stronger than a letter of reprimand. Their commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Lyle Koenig, was allowed to retire. The Justice Department then investigated 101 cases of CIA abuse, dismissed 99 of them, and ultimately found insufficient evidence to go ahead with the other two. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found that Yoo had committed "intentional professional misconduct" -- but Obama's attorney general refused to adopt the finding. Of course Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have not been punished. What is worse -- they have not been dishonored.
Why is that? Why have the torture architects not been covered with the shame they so richly deserve? The report rightly blames Obama for continuing to pull a veil of secrecy over so many crucial documents, including a 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on detainee abuse, inquiries into prisoner deaths, and even the accounts by Guantánamo inmates of their own mistreatment (on the grounds that the abuse exposed them to classified techniques). Perhaps if we knew more, we wouldn't judge the morality and efficacy of torture from episodes of 24. The crimes belong to the Bush administration, but the failure of accountability also sticks to Obama.
Yet there is no evidence that the American people want to know the truth. Quite the contrary: A poll last fall, featured on ForeignPolicy.com, found that 41 percent of respondents thought the United States should use torture against terrorists, while 34 percent thought it should not -- a figure that had increased significantly from five years earlier, when images from Abu Ghraib were still fresh. A quarter of respondents approved of waterboarding, and 30 percent of chaining prisoners naked in stress positions. The reason the horrors of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib could happen again is not simply because they have not been forbidden by law, as the report concludes, but because Americans believe that the war on terror has accorded them a right to torture.
Americans have an apparently ineradicable view of themselves as a force for good. Republicans shamelessly play to this angelic self-conception when they accuse Obama of not subscribing to the national credo of "American exceptionalism." But what dark deeds has that credo excused! To know for a certainty that your ends are noble is to excuse yourself in advance for whatever means you choose to fight your adversaries, who by definition must be evil. This is what the South American generalissimos who "disappeared" alleged communists in the "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 1980s told themselves. But of course they didn't profess to believe in fine universal principles, as Americans do. They didn't have a free press and vigorous political debate, as Americans do. The shame, therefore, in some measure attaches to all Americans, not just to America's leaders.
The detainee report quotes an official in Poland, a U.S. ally that hosted one of the "black sites" where the CIA felt free to do what they wished to "unlawful combatants." The man could not quite make sense of what he saw. "The problem," he told investigators, "is that Poland always looked to the United States as a beacon of what was right, what was aspirational, what is ethically correct. To us, when we heard about the Russians, torturing and kidnapping and killing … we thought, the United States is our model."