The United States was long admired for its ideals – the rule of law, basic rights enshrined in our Constitution, a sense of national compassion and fundamental fairness. We frequently fell short of implementing those ideals, but we tried and other nations respected the fact that we kept on trying, in Congress, in the courts, in civil society.
But after 9/11, we wandered off the track. There was the senseless sadism of Abu Ghraib, the surreptitious kidnappings – “renditions” being the preferred euphemism – and the secret and semisecret prisons, including our very own Devil’s Island in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
There was waterboarding and the shameful timidity about using the effective civilian courts in our major cities to try terrorists. There was the ongoing attempt to construct a parallel legal system heavily stacked against defendants. And, finally, there were assassinations, with no attempt at judicial review, of American citizens overseas.
Now we must live with the consequences of that shameful record.
Evidence of that is Attorney General Eric Holder, the top U.S. law-enforcement official and a member of the president’s Cabinet, who felt compelled to forward to his Russian counterpart written assurances that should Edward Snowden be returned to the United States, he would not be tortured or killed. Further, if he were tried, it would be in a civilian court, not before an ad-hoc military tribunal. Moreover, Holder wrote, Snowden would be afforded “all the protections that United States law provides,” something you would think goes without saying.
It is humiliating that an American government official must commit to a country that arbitrarily executed, enslaved, starved and worked to death tens of millions of its own citizens that “Snowden will not be tortured,” adding piously, “Torture is unlawful in the United States.”
Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, was the low-level contract employee of the National Security Agency who disclosed the massive extent of the agency’s electronic surveillance here and abroad. The extent of the program came as a shock even to Congress; the House on Wednesday came within 12 votes of blocking the program.
Events have come to a sorry pass when we have to assure the Kremlin of our willingness to adhere to civilized norms. We must try harder to live up to those ideals that made this country an exemplar to the world.