Paul Nitze: A decade that should feel painful
September 10, 2011
Toward the end of dinner last week as I was clearing glasses, a friend grumbled about her assignment to the NPR team producing Sept. 11 memorial coverage. She’s been with NPR for a decade now, producing stories on the full monty of big national events, from the 2008 election to Katrina. And she was ready to move on from this one.
I think I know how she feels. The next day I stopped by an anniversary event put on by the American Constitution Society at the National Press Club in Washington. Among others, Col. William Lietzau was there to speak about detainee policy under the Obama Administration. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, he has spent most of his 19 months on the job under a rock, since he can do no right by liberals or conservatives. Which is why his predecessors in the post have been snake-bitten.
So this was a rare chance to see the man in the flesh, and, after some anodyne remarks, attendees seized it. One questioner, his outrage given away by his quaver, wanted to know why the Bush Administration insisted on defining the fight against al-Qaida as a “war.” Wouldn’t the country have avoided some of the thorniest questions posed by our detention and interrogation policies if we hadn’t declared “war on terror,” in the expansive phrasing of the last president? Wasn’t a declaration of war an invitation to our worst human rights abuses?
Lietzau kicked off his answer with some cold water. First, he told the group that we were supported in our declaration of hostilities by the UN security counsel and NATO – by everyone who mattered. Then he went on to say that semantics would not have saved us from problems engendered by a conflict that blended intelligence, police work and combat. All true.
The cringeworthy part came at the end, when he said that our current interrogation and detention policies were forged in the crucible of a decade’s experience. Basically, we couldn’t have gotten it right back then, because we couldn’t predict where the fight against terrorism would take us. Now we’re on the right track. We’ve been learning all the while.
And so Lietzau, in his own words, recapitulated one of the foundational lies that we’ve been telling ourselves since Sept. 11. If the last decade were marked by “progress” then we wouldn’t feel so queasy about the anniversary. We know in our hearts that we have buried the issues and that there has been no great national conversation.
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Pick the angle and the results have been the same. Whether it is Lietzau’s mandate of detention policy, or surveillance, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or civil liberties, or anything else sprung by the attacks, our approach has been neither thoughtful nor intentional. Congress and both post-9/11 presidents keep hitting the snooze button, over and over.
The USA Patriot Act was reauthorized with only a flicker of national press. Congress didn’t bat an eye when enforcement agencies told members that there was no record of the surveillance provisions ever being abused since original passage. After two major Supreme Court cases and two bills addressing military commissions, Guantanamo is in suspended animation. Some detainees are released, no reason given; others are not.
Lietzau’s questioner, and other like-minded liberals, have stewed in resentment and outrage. A group not given to conspiracy theories now sees a master plan behind every bumbling misstep. It’s all about executive power, the police state and Republican control. They forget that Democrats were there every step of the way. If you want to tear down the police state, write a check to Rand Paul.
It is time for liberals, who have not felt so alienated for decades, to let it go and re-engage. If you think our Constitution is soaked in blood, well, it’s just getting another coat. Fractures over the wars and civil liberties, plus a callow political class, have kept us from debating the questions posed by the late Samuel Huntington in his book “Who Are We?”
Huntington opens the book with a mention of the numerous American flags that appeared on Beacon Hill, in Boston, in the days after 9/11. Wal-Mart sold several hundred thousand flags that week, and at least 20 of them popped up on Charles Street. By the next spring, only four were left – still three more than were flying on September 10.
At home we must find a concept of American identity that can unify us. However we balance them, we know the building blocks: secular Enlightenment values written into the Constitution, capitalism, our Protestant religious heritage, and the national social contract we entered into after the Civil War and again after the Depression. Abroad we need to have a frank conversation about how we respond to the millions of muslims who cheered the 19 hijackers and mourn Osama bin Laden (and the millions who don’t).
If there is a bright spot, it might be that the unofficial moratorium on 9/11 truth in art seems to be ending. Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission” rips the band aid off our pieties better than anything else published in the last decade. Any book that hurts so much to read has to do some good. To put our best foot forward we have to see how badly we’ve used the last ten years, and how much better we can use the next ten.
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