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Obama Offers America a Chance at Redemption

Of all the horrible things done by America over the last 8 years, nothing was more shameful than the formalization, the normalization, of torture.

It was the 2004 election which sealed the shame, for America knew, Americans knew, indeed all the world knew that torture had happened.  Was happening.  Would continue to happen if George Bush was reelected.  I still don’t know what Americans thought that election was about, but to many of us from outside it was about whether Americans were the sort of people who would elect George Bush once he had shown them his soul.

America then showed its soul to the world, and it was hard not turn aside in contempt and disgust.  Hard to look at what the shining city on the hill, the nation which stood against both Nazism and the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, had become.  In pain, in anger, led by a man who looked into the eyes of Putin, a mass murderer, and liked what he saw, Americans had given up their souls. 

Sadly, like all those who sell their souls to the devil, Americans did not receive what they paid for.  Bush made America weaker and terrorists stronger.  He did exactly what bin Laden had wanted, indeed he did more than bin Laden could have ever dreamed.  The response to 9/11, of unjustified war, of torture and hatred, had destroyed America’s soul.  And once the soul was gone, the body followed, rotting slowly from within, a slow decline visible in every sphere of public life, from economic decline based on untrammeled greed, celebrated as a virtue rather than the weakness and sin it is, to the complete destruction of any pretense of a viable press, capable of telling truth from lies.

America festered before our very eyes, rounding up immigrants into camps even as it spied on its own citizens and gutted civil rights.  Truly, if America’s enemies had ever hated it for its freedoms, then the Bush years must have been a bucket of water on the flames of their hate.  Guttering flame by guttering flame the light which had made America a beacon to the world flickered into darkness.

Today Obama, in closing Guantanamo, in affirming the Geneva Conventions and in forbidding torture, has placed redemption within the reach of Americans, though not yet their grasp.  In the words "additional guidance" for the CIA flickers the possibility that torture might not always be forbidden, just mostly forbidden.  And in relying on the Army Field Manual for guidance on interrogation methods, when it is an administrative document which can be changed at any time by administrative fiat, Obama leaves behind a door which leads to hell should any president but reach out his hand.

It is also true that when one has done something truly shamefully wrong, something so far beyond the bounds of humane behaviour that it is the very definition of evil, as is the case with torture, that redemption requires more than simply putting an end to it.

Redemption requires a sincere apology. It requires sincere and meaningful reparations.  And it requires a willingness to take some risks in setting things right.Many of the men tortured by America now hate America.  As America has sown hatred, so it may reap.  Some of them, if let go, may well be dangerous to America.  But America cannot walk down the path of "thought crimes" or "future crime" and say "I have hurt you so badly that you may lash out in vengeance, so I must wrong you further by keeping you imprisoned".  If, in fair trials, these men are found innocent, or to have already served their time for any crimes, they must be let go.  And if that leads to more evil in the future, let it not be the evil of America failing to live up to its own principles, its own ideals of justice.  Let it not be said that in having done evil to men, America then felt it must continue to do evil.

Obama has offered America, not redemption, but the chance of redemption.

Reach out and seize the day.  In so doing, reclaim your souls.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at