Staying the Course

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The Boston Globe

Staying the Course

American intellegence was proving itself inadequate to the challenge. The president appointed a special commission to make recommendations. The year was 1954. The commission chairman was James Doolittle, the retired bomber general who had led the first air raid against Tokyo.

''It is now clear," he stated in his report to President Eisenhower, ''that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, longstanding concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counter-espionage services, and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may be necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand, and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."

Sound familiar? Again and again, in the year now ending, the American people have been told by their leaders that strategies based on a new ''repugnant philosophy" are required if the nation is to survive the challenge facing it. Forbidden incendiary weapons must be used in urban settings. Prisoners of war must be deprived of Geneva protections. Aggressive interrogations of enemies must approach torture. Commitments to provide US combat forces with adequate protective gear must be forsworn. Extrajudicial kidnapping of bad people must be justified. Allies must be pressured into joining secret networks of detention camps.

Human rights standards must be jettisoned. Traditional obligations to the United Nations must be ignored. Treaties that limit action can be cast aside. Distinctions between foreign and domestic espionage must be left behind, with US citizens subject to unmonitored surveillance by military agencies. Public libraries must be regarded as government peepholes. The lawyer-client privilege must no longer be regarded as sacrosanct. The press must be recruited into the project of information management. Dissent must be labeled as treason.

A great American erosion has occurred this year, and only now are the contours of what is lost becoming apparent. Much more is at stake than the abandonment of ''longstanding concepts of 'fair-play' " of which Doolittle wrote. To ''subvert, sabotage, and destroy" what threatens us, we have begun to subvert, sabotage, and destroy what protects us: the mutuality of solemn compacts abroad, fundamental safeguards of the Constitution at home. Because the justifying ''state of emergency" is an open-ended war, the trashing of ''hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct" will be permanent. Get used to it.

Doolittle proposed a break with American traditions and laws for the sake of far more aggressive responses to Soviet communism. The year he did so saw the initiation of unprecedented American covert actions in Iran and Vietnam, with unhappy consequences that reverberate to this day. But Doolittle's remained a minority report in the annals of US government responses. Eisenhower was neither as freaked out by what threatened as his commission chairman, nor as indifferent to basic decency as a standard of national identity. To Doolittle's credit, he and those who saw things his way understood themselves as occupying the country's shadows. They knew enough to be ashamed of what they thought was necessary.

Where is the shame in Washington today? How does Donald Rumsfeld not blush in the presence of the soldiers he so routinely betrays? How does Dick Cheney maintain that straight face, treating core values as a joke? The recasting of the nation's moral meaning -- a blatant embrace of ends-justify-the-means -- is happening in plain daylight. No shadows here.

Every time the Bush administration is caught in one of its repugnant purposes (Thank God, again this year, for Seymour Hersh), the White House declares its intention to stay the course. Torture? Wiretapping? Kidnapping? Deceit? The president's eyes widen: Trust me, he says with a twisted smile. Then he leans closer to display a snarling defiance. The combination reduces his critics to sputters.

Perhaps Bush's savviest achievement has been to make the public think that Rumsfeld and Cheney are the dark geniuses behind the administration's malevolence. If Bush is taken as too shallow to have a fascist ideology; as too weak to stick with hard policies that undermine democracy; as a religious nutcase whose apocalyptic fantasies don't matter; as a man, in sum, the average citizen can regard as slightly less than average -- then what he is pulling off will not be called by its proper name until it is too late. 2005? Oh yes, that was the year of the coup.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.


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