The unspoken issue of the election: America’s descent into darkness

Summary:  Perhaps the most valuable information, & the most difficult to obtain, is not that about the world, but about ourselves. Hence these posts seeking “mirrors” in which we can see how we have changed and what we’ve become. This post looks at the results of the war on terror. Not the effects on the terrorists (who seem either unaffected or even stronger) but on our national character. It’s the most important issue never to be mentioned during this campaign.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Aphorism 146 in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

Statue of Liberty in the darkness


Assassination of jihadist leaders. Torture by the CIA, added by doctors. Torture in Abu Ghraib prison. A mass campaign of assassination, even including American citizens. Etc, etc; we all know the list. After 14 years of moral decay we have become a New America. But we were warned about the danger of this path.

“The French … The Israelis … The Americans … {these deeds} proving that he who fights terrorists for any period of time is likely to become one himself.”
— Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1991).

We concealed this transformation from ourselves — if not from others — with hypocrisy, as describe in “The Uses of al-Qaeda” by Richard Seymour in the London Review of Books, 13 September 2012.

Alan Krueger’s authoritative What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (2007) was notable for being unable to define its subject. Krueger admits that it might have been as well to discard the word in favour of the more cumbersome ‘politically motivated violence carried out by sub-state actors with the goal of spreading fear within the population’.

This excludes state violence, narrowing the field to insurgency or subversion of various kinds, but not all insurgent groups that Krueger – or the State Department – calls ‘terrorist’ make it a strategic priority to target civilian populations. Insofar as they do, they don’t necessarily differ in their methods from state actors. In the ‘war on terror’, a cardinal claim of ‘civilised’ states was that, unlike their opponents, they did not target civilians. Suicide attacks cause indiscriminate slaughter and are an indicator of barbarism; surgical strikes are the gentle civilisers of nations. There is little evidence for a distinction of that sort in the prosecution of recent wars.

Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals
Available at Amazon.

These policies didn’t just happen. They were not inevitable. Bush and Cheney made these policy changes amidst our terror after 9/11. For details see one of the most valuable books about America’s decay: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer (2009) — Excerpt…

The lesson for Bush and Cheney was that terrorists had struck at the United States because they saw the country as soft. Bush worried that the nation was too “materialistic, hedonistic,” and that Bin Laden “didn’t feel threatened” by it.

Confronted with a new enemy and their own intelligence failure, he and Cheney turned to some familiar conservative nostrums that had preoccupied the far right wing of the Republican Party since the Watergate era. There was too much international law, too many civil liberties, too many constraints on the President’s war powers, too many rights for defendants, and too many rules against lethal covert actions. There was also too much openness and too much meddling by Congress and the press.

Cheney in particular had been chafing against the post-Watergate curbs that had been imposed on the president’s powers since the mid1970s, when he had served as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. As Vice President, Cheney had already begun to strengthen the power of the presidency by aggressively asserting executive privilege, most notably on his secrecy-enshrouded energy task force. He’d told Bush, who later repeated the line, that if nothing else they must leave the office stronger than they found it. Now Cheney saw the terrorist threat in such catastrophic terms that his end, saving America from possible extinction, justified virtually any means.

… Beginning almost immediately after September 11, 2001, Cheney saw to it that some of the sharpest and best-trained lawyers in the country, working in secret in the White House and the United States Department of Justice, came up with legal justifications for a vast expansion of the government’s power in waging war on terror.

As part of that process, for the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives, making torture the official law of the land in all but name.

The lawyers also authorized other previously illegal practices, including the secret capture and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. Simply by designating the suspects “enemy combatants,” the President could suspend the ancient writ of habeas corpus that guarantees a person the right to challenge his imprisonment in front of a fair and independent authority. Once in U.S. custody, the President’s lawyers said, these suspects could be held incommunicado, hidden from their families and international monitors such as the Red Cross, and subjected to unending abuse, so long as it didn’t meet the lawyers’ own definition of torture. And they could be held for the duration of the war against terrorism, a struggle in which victory had never been clearly defined.

… almost precisely on the sixtieth anniversary of the famous war crimes tribunal’s judgment in Nuremberg, which established what seemed like an immutable principle, that legalisms and technicalities could not substitute for individual moral choice and conscience, America became the first nation ever to authorize violations of the Geneva Conventions.

… to understand the Bush Administration’s self-destructive response to September 11, one has to look particularly to Cheney, the doomsday expert and unapologetic advocate of expanding presidential power.

Appearing on Meet the Press on the first Sunday after the attacks, Cheney gave a memorable description of how the administration viewed the continuing threat and how it planned to respond.

“We’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will … We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies – if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.”

Soon afterward, Cheney disappeared from public view. But his influence had already begun to shape all that followed.

A note from history, which we ignored

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams by G.P.A. Healy (1858).

John Quincy Adams gave us sound advice in his speech at the House of Representatives on 4 July 1821:

… if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world… should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America … has held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.

  1. She has uniformly spoken among them … the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.
  2. She has … respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
  3. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings …

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.

We did not listen. But we can learn from our failures and dark deeds, exert ourselves to regain control of the government and its militaristic foreign policy. The 2016 election is largely fixed (the candidates chosen), but can still be a time to start the process. Let’s take a first step on this long road.

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2 thoughts on “The unspoken issue of the election: America’s descent into darkness”

  1. This is perhaps your single best post since the forecast about the death of the Constitution. The last quote from Cheney could be paraphrased as “we have to become terrorists forever in order to protect our country from terrorism.” That statement almost perfectly describes how to lose 4GW.

    The way to fight terrorism is through soft power. By showing justice, limiting death counts from your actions (and hyping the death counts caused by your opponents actions), by aid programs and building emotional and physical bridges with the cultures that spawned them.

    Alternately, you can just ignore the problem, survive the terrorist attacks, and wait them out. This doesn’t actually solve the problem but it still keeps the terrorists from winning (winning in this case is to become, in the eyes of the rest of the world, a terrorist).

    I recently watched a Dr. Who episode (a children’s show!) where the Doctor exclaims, “don’t let the US president near this, he’ll just bomb it!” This from our closest remaining ally! Compare this to the outpouring of support you saw from the rest of the world just after 9/11. Al Qaida was at its most vulnerable at that point and we gave them victory!

    Cheney took the only route that predictably leads to the destruction of the US. I hope Cheney lives long enough to rue his actions but I doubt he will. He’s too old and stubborn and we’re still too wrapped up in the glories of body counts.

    I predict that someday, probably in the too-far future, a President will go on television and ruefully admit, “we felt we had to destroy the Constitution in order to save it.” That is when our healing process can begin but I cannot say what will still be salvageable by then.

    1. Paul,

      Thank you for the kind words. Unfortunately this (and the hundreds like it published daily) are just entertainment for the Outer Party (American’s managers and professionals). Reform remains unlikely until someone discovers how to motivate our subjects to become citizens, turning from passive observers (armchair critics) who feel no responsibility for America into active agents who feel responsible for the nation.

      I’ve not a clue how to do that.

      “a President will go on television and ruefully admit,”

      Unlikely. Augustus made Rome an empire, but it was generations before they dispensed with the pretext that it was a republic.

      “I recently watched a Dr. Who episode (a children’s show!)”

      Dr. Who fans would riot if they heard you say this.

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