An American Hell: Don't Turn the Page on History

Facing the American World We Created

We've just passed through the CIA assassination flap, already fading
from the news after less than two weeks of media attention. Broken in several major newspapers,
here's how the story goes: the Agency, evidently under Vice President
Dick Cheney's orders, didn't inform Congress that, to assassinate
al-Qaeda leaders, it was trying to develop and deploy global death
squads. (Of course, just about no one is going to call them that, but
the description fits.) Congress is now in high dudgeon. The CIA didn't
keep that body's "Gang of Eight" informed. A House
investigation is now underway.

We're told that the CIA -- being the president's private army and part
of the executive branch of our government -- has committed a heinous
dereliction of duty. In fact, not keeping key congressional figures up
to date on the developing program could even "be illegal,"
according to Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin. (Not that Congress,
when informed of Bush administration extreme acts, ever did much of
anything anyway.)

This story, however, has a largely unexplored strangeness to it that has only been discussed on the fringes of the mainstream media (or in the press
of other countries). After all, during the eight years this CIA
assassination program was supposedly in formation, U.S. military
special ops death squads were, as far as we can tell, freely roaming
the planet conducting (or botching) assassination missions, and the CIA's own robot assassins, airborne death squads, were also launching operations -- sometimes wiping out innocent civilians -- from Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan. They continue to run such operations in the skies
over the Pakistani tribal borderlands near Afghanistan. So we still
await an explanation of just why the CIA spent close to eight years,
under Vice Presidential oversight, getting its death squads almost operational, but never -- we're told -- off the ground.

If there seems to be something odd about this latest flap, if there's
much that we don't know yet, we do, at least, know one thing: This
particular small splash from the previous administration's deep dive
into crime and folly will have its brief time in the media sun and then
be swallowed up by oblivion, just as each of the previous flaps has

After all, can you honestly tell me that you think often about the CIA torture flap, the CIA-destruction-of-interrogation-video-tapes flap, the what-did-Congress/Nancy Pelosi-really-know-about-torture-methods flap, the Bush-administration-officials-(like-Condi-Rice)-signed-off-on-torture-methods-in-2002-even-before-the-Justice-Department-justified-them flap, the National-Security-Agency-(it-was-far-more-widespread-than-anyone-imagined)-electronic-surveillance flap, the should-the-NSA's-telecom-spies-be-investigated-and-prosecuted-for-engaging-in-illegal-warrantless-wiretapping flap, the should-CIA-torturers-be-investigated-and-prosecuted-for-using-enhanced-interrogation-techniques flap, the Abu-Ghraib-photos-(round-two)-suppression flap, or various versions of the can-they-close-Guantanamo, will-they-keep-detainees-in-prison-forever
flaps, among others that have already disappeared into my own personal
oblivion file? Every flap its day, evidently. Each flap another problem
(again we're told) for a president with an ambitious program who is
eager to "look forward, not backward."

Of course, he's not alone. Given the last eight years of disaster piled
on catastrophe, who in our American world would want to look backward?
The urge to turn the page in this country is palpable, but -- just for
a moment -- let's not.

Admittedly, we're a people who don't really believe in history -- so
messy, so discomforting, so old. Even the recent past is regularly
wiped away as the media plunge us repeatedly into various overblown
crises of the moment, a 24/7 cornucopia of news, non-news, rumor,
punditry, gossip, and plain old blabbing, of which each of these flaps
has been but a tiny example. In turn, any sense of the larger picture
surrounding each one of them is, soon enough, lessened by a media focus
on a fairly limited set of questions: Was Congress adequately informed?
Should the president have suppressed those photos?

The flaps, in other words, never add up to a single Imax Flap-o-rama of
a spectacle. We seldom see the full scope of the legacy that we -- not
just the Obama administration -- have inherited. Though we all know
that terrible things happened in recent years, the fact is that, these
days, they are seldom to be found in a single place, no less the same
paragraph. Connecting the dots, or even simply putting everything in
the same vicinity, just hasn't been part of the definitional role of
the media in our era. So let me give it a little shot.

As a start, remind me: What didn't we do? Let's review for a moment.

the name of everything reasonable, and in the face of acts of evil by
terrible people, we tortured wantonly and profligately, and some of
these torture techniques -- known to the previous administration and
most of the media as "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- were actually demonstrated
to an array of top officials, including the national security adviser,
the attorney general, and the secretary of state, within the White
House. We imprisoned secretly at "black sites"
offshore and beyond the reach of the American legal system, holding
prisoners without hope of trial or, often, release; we disappeared
people; we murdered prisoners; we committed strange acts of extreme abuse and humiliation; we kidnapped terror suspects off the global streets and turned some of them over to some of the worst people who ran the worst dungeons and torture chambers
on the planet. Unknown, but not insignificant numbers of those
kidnapped, abused, tortured, imprisoned, and/or murdered were actually innocent
of any crimes against us. We invaded without pretext, based on a series
of lies and the manipulation of Congress and the public. We occupied
two countries with no clear intent to depart and built major networks
of military bases in both. Our soldiers gunned down unknown numbers of civilians at checkpoints and, in each country, arrested
thousands of people, some again innocent of any acts against us,
imprisoning them often without trial or sometimes hope of release. Our
Air Force repeatedly wiped out wedding parties and funerals in its global war on
terror. It killed civilians in significant numbers. In the process of
prosecuting two major invasions, wars, and occupations, hundreds of thousands
of Iraqis and Afghans have died. In Iraq, we touched off a sectarian
struggle of epic proportions that involved the "cleansing" of whole
communities and major parts of cities, while unleashing a humanitarian
crisis of remarkable size, involving the uprooting of more than four million
people who fled into exile or became internal refugees. In these same
years, our Special Forces operatives and our drone aircraft carried out
-- and still carry out -- assassinations globally, acting as judge,
jury, and executioner, sometimes of innocent civilians. We spied on,
and electronically eavesdropped on, our own citizenry and much of the
rest of the world, on a massive scale whose dimensions we may not yet
faintly know. We pretzled
the English language, creating an Orwellian terminology that, among
other things, essentially defined "torture" out of existence (or, at
the very least, left its definitional status to the torturer).

And don't think that that's anything like a full list. Not by a long
shot. It's only what comes to my mind on a first pass through the
subject. In addition, even if I could remember everything done in these
years, it would represent only what has been made public. Former
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was regularly mocked for saying:
"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There
are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we
don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we
don't know we don't know."

Actually, he had a point seldom thought about these days. By
definition, we know a good deal about the known knowns, and we have a
sense of an even darker world of known unknowns. We have no idea,
however, what's missing from a list like the one above, because so much
may indeed remain in the unknown-unknowns category or, as with the
latest CIA assassination story, a known curiosity whose full shape and
depths remain to be grasped. If, however, you think that everything
done by Washington or the U.S. military or the CIA in these last years
has already been leaked, think again. It's a reasonable bet that the
unknown unknowns the Obama administration inherited would curl your

what is already known, when thought about in one place, rather than
divided up into separate flaps and argued about separately, is horrific
enough. War may be hell, as people often say when trying to excuse what
we did in these years, but it should be remembered that, in response to
the attacks of 9/11, we, as a nation, were the ones who declared "war,"
made it a near eternal struggle (the Global War on Terror), and did so
much to turn parts of the world into our own private hell. Geopolitics,
energy politics, vanity, greed, fear, a misreading
of the nature of power in the world, delusions of military and
technological omnipotence and omniscience, and so much more drove us
along the way.

Perhaps the greatest fantasy of the present moment is that there is a
choice here. We can look forward or backward, turn the page on history
or not. Don't believe it. History matters.

Whatever the Obama administration may want to do, or think should be
done, if we don't face the record we created, if we only look forward,
if we only round up the usual suspects, if we try to turn that page in
history and put a paperweight atop it, we will be haunted by the Bush
years until hell freezes over. This was, of course, the lesson -- the
only one no one ever bothers to call a lesson -- of the Vietnam years.
Because we were so unwilling to confront what we actually did in
Vietnam -- and Laos and Cambodia -- because we turned the page on it so
quickly and never dared take a real look back, we never, in the phrase
of George H.W. Bush, "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." It still haunts us.

However busy we may be, whatever tasks await us here in this country
-- and they remain monstrously large -- we do need to make an honest,
clear-headed assessment of what we did (and, in some cases, continue to
do), of the horrors we committed in the name of... well, of us and our
"safety." We need to face who we've been and just how badly we've acted, if we care to become something better.

Now, read that list again, my list of just the known knowns, and ask
yourself: Aren't we the people your mother warned you about?

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