The impassioned debate currently taking place in the United States as to whether to hold an inquiry into the revelations that captives in the “war on terror” were tortured, indicates that America is at a turning point that will determine the image and substance of its democracy.

The United States has not left any physical marks that will allow the people of the future to grasp the power and influence of the mightiest military and economic power the Earth has seen. It did not build pyramids nor Parthenons nor great roads and aqueducts, like so many empires before it. The great achievements of the Americans have been mostly intangible: the development of technology that empowered the individual, the spread of open markets and the globalization of trade and affluence. Above all, though, the United States was the driving force in the spread of democracy and human rights in countries whose citizens were suffering. Even though US governments cooperated with brutal, autocratic regimes and took part in regional wars, the image of justice that they radiated created a standard that every nation wanted to reach.

With the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, it appeared that the model represented by the United States – that of democracy and capitalism – had triumphed. This illusion did not last long: The terrorist attacks of 2001, the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, the collapse of the global credit system, the widespread recession and the rapid climate changes shook the new order.

The United States found itself facing an unprecedented challenge: How could it protect its people and its interests without endangering the ideals on which the Americans’ global influence depended? It was a great misfortune for the United States – and the rest of the world – that George W. Bush was president at this critical time.

He did not waste time before deciding that what was good for America was good for the world. He adopted the dogma of “preemptive war,” along with extrajudicial killings, the kidnapping of suspects in foreign lands and harsh interrogation tactics (i. e. torture). Not only did these violate US and international laws but, in the eyes of the world, the American model lost the precious sense of its moral superiority. What once took place in the dungeons of dark regimes was now being carried out by Americans.

Beyond its moral decline, however, the Bush government’s greatest crime was its violation of the law. Scrapping punishment for those who break the law leads directly to arbitrary behavior, corruption and widespread cynicism. It destroys the fabric of society.

It’s irrelevant whether torture helped gain valuable information (as its supporters claim) or whether it lead simply to forced and useless confessions born of fear and despair (as others counter). Nor can we know whether the fear of torture dissuaded anyone from committing a terrorist act. What we do know is that undermining civil society is far more dangerous than the threat of terrorism – both for the United States and the countries whose governments might like to do the same.

In his desire for political consensus, President Barack Obama would like to avoid a confrontation with Bush administration officials and the CIA. But this is not a matter of personal choice. Just as the administration officials and CIA agents had no right to break the law, the president has no right not to order an investigation and the possible punishment of those responsible. (Let’s not forget that the revelation by US newspapers of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, painful though they were, saved the reputation of the American media and, to a great extent, cleansed their country’s name of the taint.)

Only the imposition of the law – however belatedly – can heal the wounds of its violation. And only by adhering to the law can a society show its true face.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 27 April, 2009

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