BECAUSE I’M a wonderful guy, I don’t like people suggesting that I’ve ever done anything wrong. Countries are the same way.
Yet if we frankly acknowledge our mistakes, we may avoid repeating them. But this can be painful. It feels better to gloss over unpleasant aspects of our history and pretend that we are either saintly or, at worst, well-intentioned and misunderstood.
This is why such a storm of controversy surrounds the impending release of a congressional report on the CIA’s use of extreme tactics like “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The full report is considered too graphic for public consumption, but because of maneuvering on Capitol Hill, a summary may be made public soon. According to leaked excerpts, it concludes that CIA methods were “brutal” and “far worse than the agency communicated to policy makers.”
Countries, like individuals, have fragile self-images. Maintaining them requires embracing certain myths. The most powerful of these is the myth of innocence.
This myth is uniquely comforting. Believing it can help assure a tranquil childhood. Adults, however, are supposed to be able to confront reality. Americans deserve to see the full congressional report on CIA procedures. More such reports should follow.
The United States is hardly the only country that instinctively rejects suggestions of past misdeeds. Japan still denies that its soldiers raped and murdered their way through China before and during World War II. Indonesia does not acknowledge that pro-government forces massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in the mid-1960s. France denies its role in the Rwandan genocide.
Some countries, like Chile and South Africa, have honestly sought to confront the sins of their past. These efforts, however, usually come after an old regime has fallen. That makes honesty less difficult, because perpetrators have been deposed and blaming them is easy. Considering our own responsibility is harder.
The United States was founded as a “city upon a hill,” apart from the immorality of the Old World. Americans realize that nations sometimes act selfishly, harm others, and lash out in self-defeating ways. We like to believe, however, that the United States is the exception.
Our country’s first torture scandal erupted during the Philippines campaign that began in 1898. President Theodore Roosevelt named his closest ally, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, to head an investigating committee. Lodge made sure the probe faded away without coming to any conclusions.
During the Cold War, a Methodist bishop suggested to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the United States, not just other countries, had promoted repressive violence abroad. “Why do we have to run that down?” Dulles replied indignantly. “Why present ourselves as such a terrible species of being?”
After an American missile destroyed an Iran Air jet over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing 290 civilians, then Vice President George H. W. Bush famously proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
When looking for the causes of our troubles in the world, we often fail to ask whether our actions have helped provoke some of them. One reason is that nations, like individuals, want to think well of themselves. That is easier if we believe we have done no wrong.
Bitter debate over the forthcoming report on CIA abuses suggests another reason we shy from self-examination. Divisions in Washington and across the United States are so intense that we have trouble accepting any criticism as applying to us all, to our entire nation. We prefer to point fingers — preferably at fools or knaves in the other political party.
Republicans used investigations of the 2012 storming of an American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, as a vehicle to attack Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, and to prevent one of her colleagues, Susan Rice, from succeeding her.
A recent congressional report on intelligence failures that preceded the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings collapsed into partisan bickering after Democrats charged that it was slanted in order to portray the Obama administration negatively.
Instinct pushes us away from reckoning with the mindset that led our country into disastrous foreign adventures over the last few decades. We prefer not to ask why we misjudged the world and our ability to change it. This form of denial is dangerous. Pretending that nothing went seriously wrong can only lead us to future trouble.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.