I know I missed the two-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq invasion by a couple days, but I figured it was worth looking back on anyway. Here's what I wrote the day it happened (more or less), and here's something I wrote more recently, just to show you kind of how back-and-forth I've been on the whole thing.
As vehemently opposed to the war as I was when it first started, I don't think it took me too long to come around to the idea that, in the long run, our actions could end up making Iraq a better place. I think, in the beginning at least, that that was more out of a desire to support the troops than anything else -- but more to the point, it was the realization that, now that we had troops storming into Iraq and had committed to a major military operation, we simply had to succeed in making Iraq a better place or both we and they were really, really screwed. I'm not one of those Resmuglicans showily putting purple ink on my finger and declaring all the world's problems solved because the Iraqi people got to vote in an election, but I believe we are on the road to making things better there, and can accomplish that if we do it right. At least, I pray every night we will.
Unfortunately, there's another country really in trouble right now, and even more unfortunately, it happens to be the one I'm living in. And this goes back a lot further than the Iraq war, it goes back to September 11, but it really is shocking to me just how much of our humanity we've lost since then. In those first days and weeks after we saw the Twin Towers come crashing down, we could've made a commitment to leading the world out of darkness and to eradicating the kind of conditions where that kind of murderous hate is cultivated. And I have no doubt a lot of people did just that -- but here, it seems, at least an equal number went the other way and embraced the darkness.
This was most recently brought home to me by the controversy that erupted over Eugene Volokh's attempted defense of cruel and unusual punishment. Volokh, to his credit, has since recanted after a fashion, but the sheer matter-of-factness with which he not only advocated cruel and unusual punishment but advocated it for its own sake -- i.e., it's good for a society to get its rocks off once in a while by killing a convicted murderer in the most brutal way possible -- gave me the chills in a way I'm still not sure I've completely recovered from.
Maybe if I could have been confident that it was just Volokh who thought that way, it wouldn't have bothered me so much. But here in America we've got people who, when a new story of torture or abuse comes out of Iraq, you can practically hear snickering to each other and making the jerk-off gesture with their hands. We have people writing for allegedly respectable political journals advocating such torture, not to mention the murder of "commie journalists" who might blab about such things. One of the architects of our current let's-torture strategy is now sitting in the attorney general's office. I know our country didn't always take such a cavalier attitude toward human suffering; so what suddenly made it OK? I know the standard boilerplate explanation is "9/11 changed everything," but did it change that? Did the collapse of the Twin Towers somehow free us of our responsibility to be shocked and outraged that we have now killed nearly as many people in captivity as the North Vietnamese did?
Listen, I was angry after 9/11. I was furious that my country -- not just my country, my world, my human race -- could be so horribly defiled by some madman's belief that such carnage was an acceptable way of getting his point across. But the one thing I had to hang on to after that, the one thing above all else that gave me hope we'd win this new war we'd been sucked into, was that America and its people were noble enough to rise above that kind of savagery. But not only have we forgotten that 9/11 is what we're trying to fight against, our own leaders are now using it as justification for performing the same kind of cruelty that al-Qaeda does. Hey, those guys are cruel, so we might as well be, too! But that isn't going to cut it. When we talk about "defending America" in this new war on terror, we're talking about defending the freest country in the world, the very cornerstone of modern democracy for Christ's sake, and if we take those distinctions away, what is it we're defending? If we're just going to lower ourselves to bin Laden's or Hussein's level, why even fight a War on Terror at all?
I've gotten into arguments with conservative relatives and friends about whether we're justified in all this -- the indefinite detentions at Gitmo, the waterboarding at Abu Ghraib, the horrific "extraordinary renditions" where we send suspects to other countries we think can even do an even better and more hideous job of torture than we can -- and, looking back on it, nearly every time I've made the mistake of engaging them on a legal level and getting in over my head in a legalistic debate over whether American law or the Geneva Conventions say this, that, or the other. You know what? I'm not doing that anymore. If something's wrong, it's just wrong, period, end of sentence. I don't give a shit if some out clause in the American legal code technically gives us free reign to secretly fly a terrorism suspect to Yemen to have the life beaten out of him; that's just wrong. Maybe in some twisted interpretation the law says that's OK, but the law used to say we could own other human beings as property, too. We grew out of that and it's high f$#!ing time we grew out of the notion that 9/11 gave us carte-blanche to act As Nasty As We Wanna Be.
That's my advice to you, too, if you should find yourself in that situation -- don't get mired in the legalese or the criminal codes or the jurisdictions or this or that, because it's just wrong. It's high f$#!ing time we stopped dwelling on what we can do as Americans and started paying a little more attention to what we should do. The War on Terror may be a harder one to fight if we forego our beloved indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions, but someone needs to remind our government the easier fight is rarely the righteous one.
That calls to mind an interesting point Father Brian made on Palm Sunday, after we'd finished reading the Passion. It's important to remember that while Jesus bravely suffered every punishment the Romans dished out against him, he didn't necessarily want to be there; he even said as much while he was being nailed to the cross, but he said that if that was God's will, he would accept it. "Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the same thing," Father Brian said. "We need to remind ourselves that what God is going to ask of us isn't going to be the easiest thing. We need to say, 'Lord, I wish there were an easier way, but even if there isn't, Thy will be done.' " Maybe the War on Terror -- hell, maybe life in general post 9/11 -- will be harder if we can't get our rocks off every once in a while beating the ever-living crap out of someone. But that's the only war that we as Americans can fight -- and it's the only lives we can be truly proud to live.