America is exceptional in many ways. Apologizing for our sins is not one of them.
In the past week or so, how many times have you heard someone say that what makes America unique among other nations is that even though we are capable of heinous mistakes, we alone have the moral insight to recognize them, to provide an accounting of them, and to change because of them?
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on the CIA's torture program is an "act of self-examination" that "keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with, and immigrate to," writes Thomas Friedman. If our official sins are "not exposed and checked, such actions could damage our society as much as a terrorist attack."
Vice President Joe Biden was more effusive: "Think about it. Name me another country that's prepared to stand and say, 'This was a mistake. We should not have done what we've done, and we will not do it again.'"
Sounds comforting. American self-righteousness soothes the burns from blowback. School kids learn that we mistreated Indians and gave them land to atone. They learn that we interned Japanese-Americans and gave them money. They learn that we rebuilt Europe after World War II.
America does absorb and process an unusually large number of its own failures. But we are not unique.
Germany had to exorcize so many demons after Hitler that even free speech is somewhat curtailed.
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid was flawed and yet still monumental.
The British are as capable as we are of documenting and then correcting abuses. So are the Australians.
Even Khrushchev denounced Stalin.
In some ways, despite the heroic efforts of theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr to recognize in our civic culture a strain of self-recrimination that leads to moral progress, we are not as exceptional as Germany. We recognize that our country was built by slave labor and haven't really figured out how to atone for it.
Better to see, as Peter Beinart does at The Atlantic, that American government perhaps uniquely recognizes how flawed we are as human beings and has found, over time, an efficient and procedurally fair way to ensure that our worst instincts are checked.
There's an acute tension between the intellectual class and the political class about torture. Politicians and intellectuals know that torture is wrong. Intellectuals want accountability in the form of legal redress. The politicians, bearing responsibility for instigating the policies in the first place, want to move on in the easiest way possible.
Public opinion always influences what happens next, and here, the intellectuals are behind the politicians. Politicians know that Americans want to feel special, so they tell us that the way we hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes is some immutable, collective characteristic that we all share.
Usually, atonement includes sacrifice. Practically, our political leaders know that they cannot spread the costs of actual atonement around, because that would be too much to bear. They settle instead for a historical accounting. Is this morally monstrous? Not when politicians are held accountable by voters. Voters will punish politicians who punish them, who drag the country into places that seem too uncomfortable and out of synch with progress.
When Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency's surveillance program, the public was quickly outraged, then not, then Congress tinkered with some reforms, then it mostly lost momentum, and then a few journalism prizes were won. Now, while the debate about privacy and surveillance is certainly louder than it was, it is not at all edifying.