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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

We need to start asking difficult questions of ourselves and of the results of our policies. Our political leadership does not seem willing to address such questions, but instead tries to finds ways to change the terms of the debate. If you've been able to stomach President Bush's attempts at stringing together sentences publicly lately, you've probably noticed him frequently declaring to the world that, despite evidence that American soldiers have systematically humiliated and tortured prisoners, "Americans do not behave this way," and despite the fact that his administration's lawyers wrote memoranda approving torture of suspects that "Americans do not engage in torture," since such actions are contrary to American values. Apparently, we stop being Americans when we do something wrong.

Such statements remind me of what we do when a juvenile commits a horrible crime: we declare that the child is not a child and try the juvenile as an adult. While a desire for punishment and retribution against people who commit terrible crimes should be a part of our criminal justice system, declaring juveniles adults represents more an unwillingness to address the screwed up society that creates youthful offenders than it does a legitimate desire for retribution. Transforming a juvenile into an adult allows us to shift the focus from what caused the crime to the person who did it, meaning that we never have to think about how we got where we are.

In the same way, saying that the abuses in Iraqi and Afghan prisons do not represent the values that Americans hold dear may on some level be true, but declaring the perpetrators of those crimes un-American and disconnected from the values and policies of the nation serves as a convenient means of obscuring how closely connected the abuses in those prisons are to American policy and American criminal justice practices. Can anyone doubt, after all, that the President's frequent declarations that Americans were fighting evil from the side of goodness, helped soldiers to excuse their abusive behavior? Isn't hubristic self-righteousness a contemporary and pervasive American value (it certainly explains how we thought that we could blow up and rebuild a country in less time than it took to dig a tunnel across Boston harbor)? We need to stop accepting the banalaties that have replaced analysis in our political discourse and demand that our leaders examine how our policies lead to our failures.

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