It’s an interesting coincidence: the movie “Unbroken” is about an American POW imprisoned and abused. In the movies, they torture us. They are cruel. We are courageous. But its release coincides with the Senate Report on CIA Torture. Some, of course, are genuinely surprised by the report. Others, God help them, defend torture. Some, of course, say, this is not who we are. Of course not! It’s who they are!
But that’s not my memory of history. Does anyone remember the still alive-but-renamed School of the Americas where we trained Salvadoran and Guatemalan officials to torture their people? Or the history of the Texas Rangers? Or the whipping and rape of slaves? Or lynchings? Or the torture (and genocide) of Native Americans? Or the American torture of Filipinos at the turn of the twentieth century? Or the torture of American conscientious objectors in American prisons during World War 1. Or police methods here, there, and everywhere? Or, or, or.
These are only the tips of many icebergs. How many examples of our collective behavior must we acknowledge before we admit: this is exactly who we are?
And it is who we continue to be. Liberals may blame recent torture on the Bush-Cheney tandem, but the Obama-Biden team isn’t bringing any perpetrators to justice. That’s what we do to them when they abuse us, but not when we are the torturers. We put them on trial, not us. We remember what they did, not what we do. That, too, is who we are. We like to think that such things are aberrations in an otherwise seamless pattern of goodness, but both are well-established patterns.
And then news pours in again about mind-wasting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching atrocities – they do it again. Other news reminds us that while this is part of who we are, we are also more than that. Other news comes in that polls say that many or most Americans approve of torture…when we do it to them. And while it is hard to justify Jimmy Carter’s old statement that Americans are good people that, too, is partly true.
“Unbroken” may be a true story of courage. It is certainly a story about their cruelty. But it is not the only story. There is also a long American history of torture. And it is a tragic part of who and what we are: broken.