The War of Terror has killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of human beings, including trusting young GI's, pretty women, little babies and grannies, but those who shouldn't feel guilty do, while those who should, do not. "No regrets" is the trademark slogan of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, gung-ho torturers, and many others who've exercised their power without worries about accountability…or guilt.
Bush and Blair and all the kings' men are determined to feel no regrets, no matter how severe the carnage they've caused through bombings, ruthless home invasions, torture, and machine-gun attacks. Nor will they feel regret about the suicide explosions, car bombings, roadside bombs, kidnappings, beheadings, and other horrors that never would have happened, had they not started this sinful war.
So don't hold your breath waiting for Bush/Blair guilt, because it isn't going to happen. But what about you? Do you feel guilty for their sins? Should you?
Human beings resist guilt because it's so painful to experience. Sadness, grief, and rage aren't usually resisted because they're "clean" emotions-simple, automatic, and rarely questioned or examined. These strong feelings arise without much thought on our part.
Emotions can be manipulated up, or down. When Rush Limbaugh reassured his listeners that the depraved sexual torture by US soldiers is comparable to harmless fraternity hazing or blowing off steam, he was stoking a fire, building up anger against the "liberals" who oppose torture. Limbaugh's listeners were probably repulsed by the photos, but he helped them shift their rage away from the doers of the evil to its critics.
Rush used words and metaphors to reduce anger at anything affiliated with Bush or the war, while inciting rage towards his eternal scapegoat, "liberals". He also reduced-or eliminated-any feelings of guilt his listeners may have been experiencing.
Reducing guilt is easy; we're all too happy to feel relieved of that burden, even if it means we have to twist the truth into a pretzel shape. Instilling or increasing guilt, however, is another matter entirely; it's much harder to do because guilt hurts.
Guilt Requires Intelligence, Thoughtfulness and Moral Clarity
We may experience guilt spontaneously-or so it seems. If I say something that hurts your feelings, I feel guilty but don't remember "thinking" about guilt. On slow-motion videotape, however, I'd see that your face looked stricken for a moment, which triggered in me a cascade of reflection and thought, leading to my feelings of guilt. Guilt is painful but it's all that stands between us and utter brutality or indifference. Guilt shouldn't be banished, it should be enhanced. But first we must learn how it works:
1. The first thoughts, which I call "first-tier" responses, are so fast and fleeting that we seldom notice them. We only know that we "feel guilty" about something we've said or done. If we're reflective people, we'll notice unsettling thoughts such as "he just winced-what did I say wrong?" or "she's looking at the floor-she looks hurt".
2. Following these are the second-tier thoughts, of which we're usually aware. This is where we put two and two together: "I wonder if he thought I was including him when I talked about "those wimps"?" or "Oh no, I forgot that her father recently died of the disease I just mentioned".
3. The third-tier thoughts are where guilt will either enter our hearts and minds, or be refused entry by our inner "ego guard". We all have defenses that keep us from feeling overwhelmed by emotion-necessary in some situations, dangerous in others. Too little guarding and we'll fall apart emotionally, unable to get on with our day. Too much and we'll overlook serious problems in our thinking or consequences of our actions.
At the third-tier stage, many people are so uncomfortable that they'll grasp at any straw to get relief from threatening feelings of guilt. "Conservative" friends, talk show hosts, columnists and religious authorities help soothe away any sense of guilt by pointing out how the harmed person "had it coming", "asked for it", "is just whining", "doesn't deserve sympathy", "needs a kick in the pants", or "probably deserved it."
These "conservative" moral relativists then boost the guilty party's ego (at the very moment it's most in need of re-assessment and critique) by persuading him or her that "no harm was done", "don't worry, you tried your best", "you meant well", "it's actually you who's the victim here, not them" or even "so what?", "you're making a mountain out of a molehill" and "who cares?".
The Rightwing Media's Achievement: Guilt-Disabled Americans
This is what "conservative" talk show hosts and newspaper columnists around the country have created: the guilt-disabled American. Without guilt, we are capable of anything. Without guilt, we can be led on an invisible leash by leaders who are likewise guilt-disabled, because we no longer have the need, nor the ability, to think for ourselves.
Without the capacity for guilt, we can't "second-guess" our leaders, i.e., use our heads. There is no need, because we've learned the excuses by heart. Even before the next dirty deed is done, our minds stand at the ready with automatic rationalizations and excuses.
If your innate goodness-your empathy, your conscience, your capacity for guilt-is cut off the moment it begins to rise within you, eventually you will feel no pain. You'll be able to say, do or condone any form of cruelty without discomfort. Your ability to feel guilt will atrophy, which is precisely what your leaders, with the help of their rightwing religious apologists and media allies, have been working towards.
Of course the question will arise: Should those who've opposed the war all along feel guilty, too? This brings to mind the story of The Little Red Hen, whose barnyard friends refused to help her do the work required to make the delicious bread they all craved. After working alone while the lazy creatures sat in the sun, dreaming of that first warm slice, the Little Red Hen finally announced that the bread was ready.
When the duck, the pig, the horse and the cow exclaimed that they couldn't wait to eat, she informed them that they weren't involved in the making of the bread, so they wouldn't be involved in the eating of it. "I made it all by myself, so I'm going to eat it all by myself", she told her disappointed friends.
If you've tried hard to prevent or end this war anyway you can, while your friends, family and neighbors sat idly by, you deserve the benefits of your lonely labors-a clear conscience. If others attacked your efforts, you deserve a reward as well, but I don't think they hand out Purple Hearts for suffering in the service of trying to prevent a war. You may have to content yourself with spiritual rewards. As Jesus said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven".
If you secretly disapproved of the war while acting pro-Bush or pro-Blair to avoid trouble at home, at work or at church, well perhaps these private feelings prevented you from adding to the public's prowar frenzy. You may have tried not to reveal your opposition because you felt too weak, overwhelmed by life's problems, or simply outnumbered. Many people from the "red states" have written to tell me that they've feared for their jobs, even their physical safety, after saying something that sounded antiwar.
You can't be blamed for feeling intimidated or taking precautions, but should you feel guilty if you didn't speak up? This is the thorniest of questions, one that Germans are still struggling to answer, 60 years after the doors of Auschwitz were flung wide and the true horror of what had transpired in those dank halls became public. Not all of us are strong, talented, or well connected. Some are shy, anxious, poverty-stricken or shut off from the world in one way or another. If you hated this war, surely you do not bear responsibility for what it's done to people at home and abroad. But you may still feel guilty.
What about all those who did support the war, but claim they did so only because they were deceived by "bad intelligence" or the assurances of trusted leaders? Most people lack the know-how to look for multiple news sources; because our nation's media has been gobbled up by rightwing power brokers, Americans see only what the White House wants them to see. Are they guilty of failing to educate themselves more fully when they don't know how? Are they guilty of not questioning their leaders, when all their lives they've been trained never to question authority?
Where's the Guilt?
You can blame a conformist for going along with the crowd, but what good will it do? Better to hold the masterminds, liars, fudgers, and subtle propagandists accountable. Because its job is to prevent public misinformation rather than create it, the mainstream media, regardless pressure from its political masters, is most deserving of blame. It betrayed our trust, with tragic results.
The majority of Americans, and every single Senator except for brave Barbara Boxer, supported the war and-if they have any moral integrity-can and should reap the "benefits" of their stance: guilt. Those who condemned anyone who questioned the war as "unpatriotic" deserve an extra helping.
Redemption is possible if and when we courageously say, "Unlike our leaders, I am strong enough to admit that I was mistaken, and I'm sufficiently intelligent and moral to have regrets!" Forgiveness, however, can only be granted by God, by the victims of this unholy war, and by all who loved them.
Independent thought, intelligence, and moral clarity are the enemies of dictators, torturers and warmongers everywhere: When you can think for yourself, you can regret not only your actions, but theirs, as well. You may even notice their horrendous hypocrisy:
"The story of the [prison] camps reminds us that evil is real and must be called by its name and confronted," Cheney told a gathering in Krakow. "We are reminded that anti-Semitism may begin with words but rarely stops with words and the message of intolerance and hatred must be opposed before it turns into acts of horror." ("Anniversary Brings Leaders, Survivors to Auschwitz", Reuters 1/27/05)
One day, when the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib tour guides point to lurid photos of the depraved torture and fatal beatings that transpired inside those animal cages and windowless cubes, they will tell horrified visitors from around the world that anti-Arabism began with words but didn't stop with words. They'll show old footage from Fox News and clips from The New York Times and Parade Magazine to show how messages of intolerance and hatred subtly silenced doubts about the war and lulled Americans into embracing torture "in some cases".
They will explain that people like Cheney, Bush and Blair persuaded citizens not to oppose the men who were leading America down the path that ultimately led to its undoing, nor even to call evil by its name. Hanging over the blood-stained tile where a terrified naked prisoner was once attacked by dogs, the banner will read, "No Regrets".
Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles That Will Transform Your Family (2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn't Have to Choose Just One", as seen on her website www.jesusonthefamily.org.