I suspect that Obama’s recent about-face on the issue of releasing the so-called torture photos is more about preserving cherished cultural mythology than the stated “protection of our troops” from attacks in the far-flung reaches of American Empire. Shaken by the revelation of the torture at Abu Ghraib, the mythology that argues for American high-purpose on the world stage is shaken. Thus shaken, the debate has devolved into particulars; that is, Abu Ghraib, extra-ordinary renditions, and Guantanamo were aberrations occurring during the watch of a cowboy president and the only debatable idea is if such methods were effective in protecting the American people.
On one side of this debate is the bloviating former vice-president Dick Cheney claiming that the premium the Bush Administration placed on security trumped bothersome restraints such as treaties, human rights, and humane values. On the other side, President Obamarefuses to release the photos, breaking a prior commitment to do so, justifying his about-face with the platitude that “nothing new is revealed in the photos.”
In a sense, Obama speaks the truth. Even a cursory review of the history of American imperial development reveals that torture has been a constant feature, yet a feature obscured by an elevated rhetoric of divine providence. As Noam Chomsky reminds us in a recent article from Alternet, our national self-concept is framed by the phrase “city on a hill”, borrowed from the Gospels by the Puritan John Winthrop in 1630. Something of the “divine right of Kings” entered the American psyche, blinding us to our own worse excesses and providing a “civilizing and humanitarian” rationale to our expansionist project. In other words, the poor blighted peoples of the world need our intervention, and woe to those who resist. One need only consider the genocide of the Native American peoples to realize that as regards our national destiny, nothing will be allowed to stand in our way.
Yet examples distant from us in time are often met with dismissive shrugs. Even the more recent record from the 1980’s in Latin American—the disappearances, executions, torture, and death squads that operated and were funded by the Reagan Administration—cannot penetrate the distorted mantel of heroism with which Reagan has been draped.
Torture, as Chomsky reminds us, is a tool of empire. And for all of our embrace of “American Exceptionalism” as an animating force, we have in the past and continue through today to behave as interventionist thugs. But like a knight of old defending the honor of a maiden, our national mythology will survive whatever revelations are allowed and the illusion of our virtue will remain intact.