Nobody likes a bully.
At least that’s what we’re led to believe. If you google “bullying,” you find almost 12 million entries, more sites than anyone with a life has time to explore. Although I am sure there are some exceptions, I believe it’s safe to say that most of these entries are, in one way or another, against bullying.
Yet anyone who’s been watching the news for the past few weeks would be hard-pressed not to conclude that bullying is institutional America’s standard operating procedure.
I say this after having tried to digest the indigestible contents of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices, better — and more appropriately — known as the Torture Report.
This report documents the truly awful extent to which torture became our country’s modus operandi with captives suspected of being on the wrong side of the war on terror. This information, while rendered in greater detail than ever before, is not new. Anybody paying attention knows this country’s employed some horrific tactics in the name of making us safe.
What the report underscores is that these practices violated international treaties we had previously signed, as well as our own laws. War crimes, in other words, were committed. To some degree, this may still be going on.
Though gut-wrenching, the use of torture is justified by some, claiming it provides information that saves American lives. The report disputes this, showing that in case after case, crucial information in preventing plots or capturing terrorists was obtained by other means.
Sen. John McCain, himself the victim of torture during the Vietnam War, has said on numerous occasions that torture doesn’t produce useful intelligence.
So why did we do it? And why do some people insist on defending torture?
More than anything, I think we wanted to send a message. Torture became America’s way of telling the world, especially those parts of it we wanted to intimidate, that we could be their worst nightmare. This was bullying, pure and simple.
This institutionalized bullying has found expression here at home. We saw it last summer in the hyper-militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the gang tackling, chokehold killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
This is not to say that cops, by definition, are bullies. But cops are not immune to fear; they place themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Too often, they are outgunned. The result is that, instead of feeling as if they are protecting and serving, they must feel as if they are in hostile territory. One thing leads to another.
Fear and power are a potent mix. One gives the other permission to express itself by doing damage. This is easily confused with strength, a quality most Americans like to think of as part of our national DNA.
But the cocktail of fear and power only seems like strength. Unfortunately, reaching for that brew is most tempting when whatever passes for control appears threatened, or lost. It’s built for bullies.