My uncle, a Marine, was killed in Vietnam eight years before I was born.
Before him, both my grandfathers served in uniform, several other relatives in my generation are veterans and, now, those following in our footsteps are enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.
When I consider President Barack Obama’s recent decision to withhold photos of alleged prisoner abuse, after previously saying the photos would be released, my mind immediately turns to all these family members and how I would have felt if any of of them had been on the receiving end of a waterboarding.
Raging anger would be the tip of the iceberg.
I would be hard-pressed to summon up a single policy of the George W. Bush administration that even remotely aligned with my own ways of thinking. Knowing that these photos exist at all, that there is even more proof of such grievous betrayal of what I thought our country stood for, makes me boil anew. But, it’s a tempered ire. The journalist screams out for transparency, the grandson fears for every soldier with boots in the sand should the photos see the light of day.
Reza Aslan, a Middle Eastern theology scholar, visited Portland’s Powell’s City of Books last month as part of a book signing tour and talked about the Muslim world’s perception of the United States.
“There is a renewed sense in large parts of the world, even in the Muslim world, that the image that the United States has of itself as a nation that always stands with the oppressed against the oppressor, the nation that always stands with the slaughtered against the slaughterers,” he said. “The truth is that (the Muslim world) does think of us in those terms and it creates an enormous amount of disappointment and betrayal when our economic interests, and our short-term security interests compromise our moral conviction.
“This is the only country in the world that can actually change the world. If we make sure that this administration recognizes that we expect more than concrete practical steps, that we expect a re-imagining of who we are that our national identity is going to reformulate itself and re-exert itself, that is something the general public has some influence over.”
There’s a lot of idealism in that statement. I felt my heart grow as he spoke it, but then there’s these photos. Photos that, presumably, depict U.S. agents in the role of the oppressor.
The hard truth is we are emerging from troubling times. And it’s going to take time to heal the wounds inflicted on us and those our country inflicted on others.
The photos could serve some purpose in process.
Current practice would require the abuse photos be declassified after 25 years, but that’s too long. The victims of the abuse and their families need and deserve a chance to reconcile what happened to them and their loved ones. On the other hand, soldiers landing on the ground today should not be held accountable for the actions of those that preceded them.
Seven to 10 years seems a more reasonable amount of time. It would allow for a period of cooling off on all sides, and many victims would still be around to speak about their experiences and educate us all about the fallacy of useful abuse and torture.
Such a policy would be both a practical step toward peaceful resolution and a reassertion of the national identity we’ve been missing for too long.