The just-released Senate report on CIA interrogation practices since 9/11 contains nothing that would have surprised the journalist and critic Randolph Bourne. Back in 1918, in an essay left unfinished at the time of his death later that year, Bourne had warned that “war is the health of the state.”
And so it is. War thrusts power into the hands of those who covet it. Only the perpetuation of war, whether under the guise of “keeping us safe” or “spreading freedom,” can satisfy the appetite of those for whom the exercise of power is its own reward. Only war will perpetuate their prerogatives and shield them from accountability.
What prompted Bourne’s pungent observation was US intervention into the disastrous European war that began a century ago this summer. In 1917, Congress had acceded to President Woodrow Wilson’s request to enter that stalemated conflict, Wilson promising a world made safe for democracy and vowing to end war itself.
Bourne foresaw something quite different. War turned things upside down, he believed. It loosened the bonds of moral and legal restraint. It gave sanction to the otherwise impermissible. By opting for war, Bourne predicted, the United States would “adopt all the most obnoxious and coercive techniques of the enemy,” rivaling “in intimidation and ferocity of punishment the worst government systems of the age.”
And so it has come to pass, the United States in our own time having indisputably embraced torture as an allowable practice while disregarding the rule of law and trampling underfoot the values to which the chief representatives of the state routinely profess to adhere.
How did this happen? To blame a particular president, a particular administration, or a particular agency simply will not do. The abuses described in the report prepared by the Senate Committee on Intelligence did not come out of nowhere. Rather than new, they merely represent variations on an existing theme.
Since at least 1940, when serious preparations for entry into World War II began, the United States has been more or less continually engaged in actual war or in semi-war, intensively girding itself for the next active engagement, assumed to lie just around the corner. The imperatives of national security, always said to be in peril, have taken precedence over all other considerations. In effect, war and the preparation for war have become perpetual. If doubts existed on that score, the response to 9/11, resulting in the declaration of an ambiguous and open-ended global war on terrorism, ought to have settled them.
One consequence of our engagement in permanent war has been to induce massive distortions, affecting apparatus of government, the nation, and the relationship between the two. The size, scope, and prerogatives accorded to the so-called intelligence community — along with the abuses detailed in the Senate report — provide only one example of the result. But so too is the popular deference accorded to those who claim to know exactly what national security requires, even as they evade responsibility for the last disaster to which expert advice gave rise.
“It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt,” Senator Dianne Feinstein writes in introducing the report prepared under her direction. Yet “pressure, fear, and expectations of future terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken . . . in the name of national security.” Hers is a carefully reasoned judgment. As such, it deserves a respectful hearing. Sadly, however, it falls well short of being adequate.
Critics will accuse Feinstein of endangering the nation’s safety, soiling its reputation, hanging out to dry patriotic agents doing what needed doing in our name. This is all nonsense. Her actual failing is far worse. She and her colleagues are doing what the state always does for itself in these situations: administering a little public slap on the hand, after which an ever-so-quiet return to business as usual will ensue.
War is the health of the state. Headline-grabbing scandals involving the national security apparatus come and go. Today’s is just one more in a long series extending back decades. As long as the individuals and entities comprising that apparatus persist in their commitment to permanent war, little of substance will change. Bourne grasped that essential truth. Until Americans come to a similar appreciation, they should expect more of the same.