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Michael Bettencourt


The results in the Senate report on the CIA torture program should surprise no one.  Nor should the failure of the torture to draw out anything useful.  The CIA's distinct overall legacy is that it is terrible at doing its job.  They are constantly surprised by events they fail to predict, despite billions of dollars invested in people and machinery, and they should be abolished simply based on its dismal performance evaluation.


And the torture itself?  That comes from the usual toxic brew of the "American exceptionalist" ideology (Fox News' Andrea Tantaros' rap that "America is awesome"), inept imperialism, a sentimentalized Christian righteousness, and our corrupted democracy.


Not everyone, of course, condemned the findings. In a smarmy interview in one of the subway newspapers, the families of the "victims" of September 11 spoke fiercely how about anything done to these guys was completely justified (there's that Christian righteousness) and that they were okay with the program.


Cheney, Bush, Tenet, and the whole neocon wrecking crew went on the offensive as well as about the report, with Cheney the best/worst of the bunch with his mix of hurt feelings and steel-jawed virtue as he chewed the scenery on Meet the Press.


However, convicting people for war crimes over this won't change anything.  Nor will the mouth-music of a million mea culpas, from the President on down, change anything.  Even abolishing the security apparatus (saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives) won't change anything.


Nothing will change until the creed of American exceptionalism changes (i.e., "America is not awesome!"). We're not awesome in any regard that matters to a good human life, and things at which we are awesome (e.g., torture) don't do us or anyone any good in the world.


The first pillar that needs to be knocked away is the militarization of our society, from the crude economics of the military-industrial complex to the veneration of military power and the warriors sacrificed on its altar.  We may need a "military" (we can debate that - the framers of the Constitution certainly did, about Article 1, Section 8, Clause 12), but we don't need this military with its kudzu-like suffocation of investment and initiative. Let's honor all the people who have been chewed up by this machine, but let's not feed it any more people, foreign or domestic.


Second, America has spent a century or so trying to be an empire, and it's time to end the experiment and rack it up as a failure. We have neither the ruthlessness nor competence to lord it over anyone, and our effort to do so has only made us unable to lord it over ourselves, giving rise to adventures and failures and impetuosities that have done nothing but cause suffering and resentment.


Third, and related, if we can get rid of our imperial delusions, it will be easier for us to accept that, at least for the foreseeable future, American will remain a hyperactive adolescent running around with a gun in its hand rather than being the mature leader of the free world that we think we are.  The American dream machine is awesome at producing round after round of content that helps the world amuse itself to death, and we should stick with our strengths in this regard.  We have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves mature, sophisticated, civilized folks offering sage advice to the world.


All of this spade-work is negative, though, only clearing the field for the real planting.  The true question is this: What can America be awesome at?  And for that question, I have a single answer.


From time to time the media report on reports that rank countries according to the quality of life: infant mortality, educational achievement, societal health (mental and physical), and so on.  And without fail, America is never awesome in these reports, or, more accurately, it's negatively awesome, far down in the ranks for things in which it could be leading the pack.


This is where I think America should be awesome, be exceptional: in making this a country where living is not a collision sport with enormous collateral damage.  We should be awesome in every index-item that develops and furthers the good life (as defined by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky in their 2012 book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life).  We don't need to be awesome in conducting foreign wars, bankrolling oppression, or trying to sit at the head of the table for every negotiating session.  We do need to be awesome in ensuring that our citizens have the means to lead healthy, satisfying lives.


This is not nanny-state sort of stuff.  A healthy citizenry can also be an engaged citizenry (especially if we can get money out of politics), in whose name things can be done that bring honor to the nation rather than shame and danger. An easier life will be a better life for everyone, not only for American citizens but also for all those people in other countries who now will not die because America will stay home and tend its own garden rather going off on military escapades.


How would this philosophical and spiritual shift happen, since we have spent so much time going in the opposite direction? (So much easier to prescribe than lead!) I don't know, but I do know it won't catalyze in a large way until there is a "Nixon in China" moment, until someone who has the authority to make it stick gets up and says, "You know, we've been wrong about who we are and what we think our purpose is in the world.  No harm in admitting this, so let's admit it so that we can get started doing things in the right way," followed by a full-court press of beginning to build the new road.


Until then, we can only do what we can do within our individual selves and within the communities that matter to us to get us off the death-road and onto the life-road, to make the ordinary exceptional and pop the balloon of "exceptionalism" whenever we have the chance.

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April 2015

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |





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