Don’t Turn the Page on History
Facing the American World We Created
By Tom Engelhardt
We’ve just passed through the CIA assassination flap, already fading from the news after less than two weeks of media attention. Broken in several major newspapers, here’s how the story goes: the Agency, evidently under Vice President Dick Cheney’s orders, didn’t inform Congress that, to assassinate al-Qaeda leaders, it was trying to develop and deploy global death squads. (Of course, just about no one is going to call them that, but the description fits.) Congress is now in high dudgeon. The CIA didn’t keep that body’s “Gang of Eight” informed. A House investigation is now underway.
We’re told that the CIA — being the president’s private army and part of the executive branch of our government — has committed a heinous dereliction of duty. In fact, not keeping key congressional figures up to date on the developing program could even “be illegal,” according to Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin. (Not that Congress, when informed of Bush administration extreme acts, ever did much of anything anyway.)
This story, however, has a largely unexplored strangeness to it that has only been discussed on the fringes of the mainstream media (or in the press of other countries). After all, during the eight years this CIA assassination program was supposedly in formation, U.S. military special ops death squads were, as far as we can tell, freely roaming the planet conducting (or botching) assassination missions, and the CIA’s own robot assassins, airborne death squads, were also launching operations — sometimes wiping out innocent civilians — from Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan. They continue to run such operations in the skies over the Pakistani tribal borderlands near Afghanistan. So we still await an explanation of just why the CIA spent close to eight years, under Vice Presidential oversight, getting its death squads almost operational, but never — we’re told — off the ground.
If there seems to be something odd about this latest flap, if there’s much that we don’t know yet, we do, at least, know one thing: This particular small splash from the previous administration’s deep dive into crime and folly will have its brief time in the media sun and then be swallowed up by oblivion, just as each of the previous flaps has been.
After all, can you honestly tell me that you think often about the CIA torture flap, the CIA-destruction-of-interrogation-video-tapes flap, the what-did-Congress/Nancy Pelosi-really-know-about-torture-methods flap, the Bush-administration-officials-(like-Condi-Rice)-signed-off-on-torture-methods-in-2002-even-before-the-Justice-Department-justified-them flap, the National-Security-Agency-(it-was-far-more-widespread-than-anyone-imagined)-electronic-surveillance flap, the should-the-NSA’s-telecom-spies-be-investigated-and-prosecuted-for-engaging-in-illegal-warrantless-wiretapping flap, the should-CIA-torturers-be-investigated-and-prosecuted-for-using-enhanced-interrogation-techniques flap, the Abu-Ghraib-photos-(round-two)-suppression flap, or various versions of the can-they-close-Guantanamo, will-they-keep-detainees-in-prison-forever flaps, among others that have already disappeared into my own personal oblivion file? Every flap its day, evidently. Each flap another problem (again we’re told) for a president with an ambitious program who is eager to “look forward, not backward.”
Of course, he’s not alone. Given the last eight years of disaster piled on catastrophe, who in our American world would want to look backward? The urge to turn the page in this country is palpable, but — just for a moment — let’s not.
Admittedly, we’re a people who don’t really believe in history — so messy, so discomforting, so old. Even the recent past is regularly wiped away as the media plunge us repeatedly into various overblown crises of the moment, a 24/7 cornucopia of news, non-news, rumor, punditry, gossip, and plain old blabbing, of which each of these flaps has been but a tiny example. In turn, any sense of the larger picture surrounding each one of them is, soon enough, lessened by a media focus on a fairly limited set of questions: Was Congress adequately informed? Should the president have suppressed those photos?
The flaps, in other words, never add up to a single Imax Flap-o-rama of a spectacle. We seldom see the full scope of the legacy that we — not just the Obama administration — have inherited. Though we all know that terrible things happened in recent years, the fact is that, these days, they are seldom to be found in a single place, no less the same paragraph. Connecting the dots, or even simply putting everything in the same vicinity, just hasn’t been part of the definitional role of the media in our era. So let me give it a little shot.
As a start, remind me: What didn’t we do? Let’s review for a moment.
In the name of everything reasonable, and in the face of acts of evil by terrible people, we tortured wantonly and profligately, and some of these torture techniques — known to the previous administration and most of the media as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — were actually demonstrated to an array of top officials, including the national security adviser, the attorney general, and the secretary of state, within the White House. We imprisoned secretly at “black sites” offshore and beyond the reach of the American legal system, holding prisoners without hope of trial or, often, release; we disappeared people; we murdered prisoners; we committed strange acts of extreme abuse and humiliation; we kidnapped terror suspects off the global streets and turned some of them over to some of the worst people who ran the worst dungeons and torture chambers on the planet. Unknown, but not insignificant numbers of those kidnapped, abused, tortured, imprisoned, and/or murdered were actually innocent of any crimes against us. We invaded without pretext, based on a series of lies and the manipulation of Congress and the public. We occupied two countries with no clear intent to depart and built major networks of military bases in both. Our soldiers gunned down unknown numbers of civilians at checkpoints and, in each country, arrested thousands of people, some again innocent of any acts against us, imprisoning them often without trial or sometimes hope of release. Our Air Force repeatedly wiped out wedding parties and funerals in its global war on terror. It killed civilians in significant numbers. In the process of prosecuting two major invasions, wars, and occupations, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have died. In Iraq, we touched off a sectarian struggle of epic proportions that involved the “cleansing” of whole communities and major parts of cities, while unleashing a humanitarian crisis of remarkable size, involving the uprooting of more than four million people who fled into exile or became internal refugees. In these same years, our Special Forces operatives and our drone aircraft carried out — and still carry out — assassinations globally, acting as judge, jury, and executioner, sometimes of innocent civilians. We spied on, and electronically eavesdropped on, our own citizenry and much of the rest of the world, on a massive scale whose dimensions we may not yet faintly know. We pretzled the English language, creating an Orwellian terminology that, among other things, essentially defined “torture” out of existence (or, at the very least, left its definitional status to the torturer).
And don’t think that that’s anything like a full list. Not by a long shot. It’s only what comes to my mind on a first pass through the subject. In addition, even if I could remember everything done in these years, it would represent only what has been made public. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was regularly mocked for saying: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Actually, he had a point seldom thought about these days. By definition, we know a good deal about the known knowns, and we have a sense of an even darker world of known unknowns. We have no idea, however, what’s missing from a list like the one above, because so much may indeed remain in the unknown-unknowns category or, as with the latest CIA assassination story, a known curiosity whose full shape and depths remain to be grasped. If, however, you think that everything done by Washington or the U.S. military or the CIA in these last years has already been leaked, think again. It’s a reasonable bet that the unknown unknowns the Obama administration inherited would curl your toes.
Nonetheless, what is already known, when thought about in one place, rather than divided up into separate flaps and argued about separately, is horrific enough. War may be hell, as people often say when trying to excuse what we did in these years, but it should be remembered that, in response to the attacks of 9/11, we, as a nation, were the ones who declared “war,” made it a near eternal struggle (the Global War on Terror), and did so much to turn parts of the world into our own private hell. Geopolitics, energy politics, vanity, greed, fear, a misreading of the nature of power in the world, delusions of military and technological omnipotence and omniscience, and so much more drove us along the way.
Perhaps the greatest fantasy of the present moment is that there is a choice here. We can look forward or backward, turn the page on history or not. Don’t believe it. History matters.
Whatever the Obama administration may want to do, or think should be done, if we don’t face the record we created, if we only look forward, if we only round up the usual suspects, if we try to turn that page in history and put a paperweight atop it, we will be haunted by the Bush years until hell freezes over. This was, of course, the lesson — the only one no one ever bothers to call a lesson — of the Vietnam years. Because we were so unwilling to confront what we actually did in Vietnam — and Laos and Cambodia — because we turned the page on it so quickly and never dared take a real look back, we never, in the phrase of George H.W. Bush, “kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” It still haunts us.
However busy we may be, whatever tasks await us here in this country — and they remain monstrously large — we do need to make an honest, clear-headed assessment of what we did (and, in some cases, continue to do), of the horrors we committed in the name of… well, of us and our “safety.” We need to face who we’ve been and just how badly we’ve acted, if we care to become something better.
Now, read that list again, my list of just the known knowns, and ask yourself: Aren’t we the people your mother warned you about?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
[TomDispatch thanks go to… Joe Duax of the Nation Institute, who does an exceptional job of keeping this website humming along; Nick Turse, who assists in so many ways, while winning awards in his other life; Tam Turse, site photographer and keen-eyed copyeditor; and Christopher Holmes, who holds down the Tokyo “office” of TomDispatch and keeps these pieces shipshape. A small bow to Andy Kroll for fill-in duties and to Bill Kline, TomDispatch intern, for making the TD Facebook website a livelier place. And a final small bow to Paul Woodward of the always fascinating War in Context website. He was the first person I noticed to use the term “death squads” for the prospective CIA assassination teams.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt