America's snooze alarm went off again yesterday. Slowly, fitfully, people are starting to wake up from a long national slumber. Our psychic clock radio switched on this time to a Middle Eastern jazz riff, punctuated by the screams of the tortured. The powerful damnation of the Senate's lengthy and comprehensive report on torture by the CIA during its post-9/11 counter-terrorism program proves that there is truth... and then there is truth acknowledged. Yes, the new details are stunning, shocking, alarming -- I'd hoped, unsuccessfully, to make it through my entire life without pondering "rectal rehydration" -- but the broader message of the terror report is exactly what a dedicated minority of folks have been saying for years, to a nation basking in plausible denial.
To sum up:
"Enhanced interrogation" is a bogus term meaning "torture when it's done by Americans." The CIA -- and, more importantly, our highest-ranking government officials -- lied about how extensive it was. There was an extensive effort to manipulate the media and U.S. public opinion. Many innocent people were caught up in this violent web. The American torture tactics produced no useful intelligence. To the contrary, the widespread use of these practices inspired a new generation of anti-Americanism, among groups like ISIS that now dress its victim on the orange jumpsuits of the gulag we constructed. Meanwhile, U.S. officials and operatives violated a plethora of laws, both domestic and international, to make this happen.
Did I mention that torturing human beings is immoral?
Beyond the important new details, the real value of the Senate torture report was simply this: To put an uncomfortable seal of official truth on what we already knew -- an inconvenient truth that many folks, from Dick Cheney to the average citizen, had desperately wished to throw down America's volcano-sized memory hole. That's the good news, I guess. The bad news is that we're not having the appropriate nation conversation: What comes next? That's because we all know that this torture report, which should trigger a wave of prosecutions and other major recriminations, was in fact not the beginning, but the end. There will be no prosecutions. There will be no accountability, no justice.
It's the American way... the modern one, anyway.
It seemed like something of a coincidence that this huge story about the American torture regime broke at a time when suddenly, surprisingly, the largest mass protest movement in more than 40 years had taken to the streets of major American cities from Boston to Los Angeles, from Miami to Seattle. You could make the case that the torture report was something of an interruption; after all, it knocked the protests about police killings out of the lead-story position on cable news for the first time in more than a week. It see it differently. I think these two stories -- CIA agents torturing terror suspects, police gunning down unarmed black men in U.S. cities -- are cut from the same cloth.
When you ask why are so many people out in the street (at the start of winter, no less), I'd say we've reached a tipping point, in the original, pre-Malcolm Gladwell use of the term. The scale that's tipping, simply, is justice. It was already going over when the torture report hit like a ton of bricks.
Think of it this way. Start with a nation peering over the precipice of empire, afraid of losing everything. Real-life events (9/11, higher crime rates in poor urban communities) are exploited to create widespread anxiety and fear. Authorities declare an endless "war" not against nations but against vague concepts ("terror," "drugs"). The masses are whipped up -- aided and abetted by a ratings-starved news media, including talk radio -- against The Other (Arabs, U.S. blacks and Latinos). That public elects officials who cast a wide net that criminalizes not just the actual bad guys, but entire classes of people. Civil liberties are the first casualty (warrantless wiretapping, stop and frisk). Law enforcement, at the nexus of these fears, and under immense pressure, responds with brutality (torture, police violence). The end result is state-sanctioned violence against people on the margins, with little or no rights.
And what makes such an unjust moral universe possible? The complete absence of accountability, a rot that's been festering in the American body politic for decades now. It was in the mid-1970s that Richard Nixon shocked TV viewers by telling David Frost that "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal." The 37th president was wrong in the moral sense, but he was emboldened by the pardon he'd been given by his successor, Gerald Ford. Today, it's not just the president, or the vice president, or all the president's men. When a millionaire does it, that means it is not illegal (or at least punishable). Or when a Wall Street CEO does it. Or a cop, or an FBI agent. There is little that the elite, the wealthy, the powerful -- and their protectors -- can't get away with America in 2014. It's what sets elites apart, in an increasingly separate and unequal society. And these elites know it. Which is why it's happening more often.
But everyday people are catching on. There's a reason that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner would cause protests so many cities, many 1,000 or more miles away. It's because we've all seen the abuses, no matter where we live. In hometown of Philadelphia, people are tired of reading about police officers committing gross misconduct -- punching a women on video at a parade, or cutting the security cam to the bodega the cops are allegedly robbing -- and winning their jobs back, if they're even disciplined in the first place. Students are the University of Pennsylvania are wondering why a campus that trains the nation's elites isn't contributing some of its wealth to dilapidated public schools just blocks away. In a time of mass incarceration, they've seen neighborhoods and families ripped apart by the "war on drugs" and "broken windows" policing -- with people arrested for selling "loose cigarettes" or hassled just for walking in the street -- even as the mortgage fraudsters and stock scammers who looted billions from the global economy in the 2000s walk free.
The web of injustice keep growing larger. Just today, Congress is trying to sneak through an outrageous budget bill that increases the amount of money that millionaires can give to political parties by a factor of 10, and which would undo some of the Wall Street reforms meant to prevent another financial calamity like the crisis of 2008. Again, it's because the politicians know that they can't be held accountable -- because they drew up the election maps to make sure won't. And maybe the news that no one will be punished for torture made them even bolder. These things are contagious, after all.
Yet every day, more citizens are radicalized. They feel it in their souls -- that the bigger forces that killed Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley are in some way responsible for the death of Gul Rahman, an Afghani who was arrested in a case of a mistaken identity and froze to death. They wonder why Daniel Pantaleo, who placed the chokehold on Eric Garner, still has his job, but then they wonder the same thing about the Goldman Sachs traders who peddled toxic loans. They ask why Darren Wilson wasn't charged with a crime for shooting Michael Brown, and then they ask why Dick Cheney wasn't indicted, either.
After the torture report, President Obama told an interview that "that's not who we are." But that's not helpful. It's better to acknowledge that torture, and reckless police misconduct, and fraud and corruption, increasingly is who are are -- some of us, anyway -- and that it's going to get worse without justice, without holding some folks accountable.