I think the United States of America is exceptional. American exceptionalism is a little harder to swallow.
As I understand it, American exceptionalism proclaims that the United States stands athwart history, yelling "Stop!" It is a country like no other, the world's first and longest-lasting democratic republic, a beacon of liberty, a superpower impervious to the fate that befell Rome and the Ottomans.
The Republican Party defines American exceptionalism in its 2012 party platform as "the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history," guided by the doctrine of "peace through strength" and an "adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders' enshrined in our nation's Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence."
Fox News host Andrea Tantaros was a little more succinct, responding on Tuesday's Outnumbered to the Senate's big report on CIA torture: "The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome."
Even if you accept that — or the other, more nuanced formulations of American exceptionalism — the fact that the CIA, with authorization from a U.S. president, grotesquely tortured prisoners is a problem. In fact, it may be more than a problem.
Many, but not all, Republicans sharply opposed the release of the 500-page unclassified section of the report on how America tortured people in one of its darker hours, arguing that it is one-sided (though not incorrect), politically motivated, and puts American lives in danger. But what they really seem opposed to is that it makes America look bad. The issue isn't that the U.S. tortured people, they argue, it's that now anyone with an internet connection can see in stark detail how the United States didn't live up to its ideals.
"As a country we decided we are better than this, so we stopped" the "terror tactics" at the CIA, Tantaros said Tuesday:
We've had this discussion, we've closed the book on it, and we've stopped doing it. And the reason [Democrats] want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we're not awesome. They apologized for this country, they don't like this country, they want us to look bad. [Tantaros, Fox News]
The Obama administration — which neither wrote nor released the report — believes "naively that if we can just shame ourself and convince the world how horrible we are, and put us on a moral equivalency with all these other countries," Tantaros added later, "then maybe they will stop beheading Americans and putting our heads on sticks."
Got it? According to Tantaros and many of her fellow conservatives, the Bush administration allowed the CIA to do distasteful things, the American people decided to change course (presumably by electing Obama and a Democratic Congress), and that whole torture thing is water under the bridge. No need to bring it up and make it seem like the United States has a "moral equivalency" with other countries that do bad things. What's hurting America isn't that the government tortured people, it's that we talking about it.
That's horse apples. America's CIA did some terrible things, in some terrible places, to at least 119 people, and we now know that at least 26 of them were tortured by mistake. Waterboarding, to list one CIA technique, was apparently invented as a torture technique by Spanish inquisitors in the 1500s, and the U.S. prosecuted Japanese soldiers for war crimes for using it during World War II. Perhaps the CIA itself came up with feeding prisoners puréed meals through their rectum.
There is some "moral equivalency" when two nations both torture prisoners. It doesn't really matter if the U.S. has a better, more transparent system of government and superior rule of law than, say, our friend Saudi Arabia and frenemy China: Torture holds a special, morally repugnant place in the annals of infamy because it dehumanizes people and breaks them — and it breaks the people, and peoples, who do it to them.
That's no place for a divinely endowed, exceptionally righteous nation to tiptoe into. Pretending it didn't happen, or closing our eyes to the ugliness, doesn't make that any better.
Probably the best way to think about American exceptionalism is as an aspiration, a constant striving to be exceptionally good while acknowledging that we are currently falling short. Not for the first time — remember the Native American "trail of tears," the mass internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, slavery? — America fell very short.
America really blew it by torturing people, and it's a good thing that, even kicking and screaming, we are letting the world know that we know where we fell short. I'll give conservatives this: Imperial Rome probably wouldn't have done that.
If you want to fit the CIA torture report into a vision of a great and powerful America, think of it as its own sun disinfecting its mildewy underside.
More than anything, though, the report is a reminder that while terrorists can't really destroy America, America can.
Obama said some nice things about how America is upholding its values by publicizing its grotesque errors, as did outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). But I'll end with some thoughts from the only member of Congress actually tortured by the enemy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).
"The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow," McCain said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. But not only is torture ineffective, it also "compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored." He continued:
But in the end, torture's failure to serve its intended purpose isn't the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn't about our enemies; it's about us. It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It's about how we represent ourselves to the world. We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them....
We need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us. [McCain]
If that's how America embraces American exceptionalsim, it will probably be OK.