On 9/11, I watched the towers collapse into a billowing volcanic cloud from The Week's offices, and vividly remember the terror that subsequently seized the city and the country. It was widely believed that it was just the first of many attacks — with planes, dirty bombs, nuclear weapons. Police and National Guardsmen armed for warfare filled train stations, airports, and public places. Airline traffic plummeted. When the anthrax letters began arriving, frantic mothers bought up gas masks and antibiotics for the inevitable biowarfare attack, and families began stocking up on food, water, and duct tape. America lost its collective mind. It was amid this mass hysteria that the Bush administration crossed a line that the U.S. had never before crossed, not even in fighting Hitler's Germany. In order to deliver us from evil, our intelligence agencies tortured people with a persistent, sadistic brutality that, we know now, left even CIA officers nauseated, shaking, and crying.
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This is terrorism's sick genius. Terrorists invite us — seduce us — to share their Manichaean worldview, to respond to savagery with savagery, to join them in madness. "Make us safe!" Americans demanded. And so our elected leaders launched two wars, saw WMD where there were none, launched surveillance programs with virtually no limits, and embraced "enhanced interrogation." As justification, the White House and the CIA joined Machiavelli, Marx, and Stalin in insisting that the end justifies the means. Lots of individuals bear responsibility for the horrors detailed in the Senate committee’s torture report. But if we are honest, that journey to the Dark Side was a collective failure — and sobering evidence of how fragile our principles really are.