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Tearing at the edges of freedom

Gary Caruso | Thursday, October 11, 2007

Author Christopher Hitchens’ latest book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” contends – among other assertions – that religious faith is grounded on wish-thinking. He writes that God did not create man in his own image, but the other way around. With man conjuring an image of God, Hitchens says, that it “is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.”

Hitchens suggests that people who are otherwise goodhearted can be blinded by a belief in a higher authority which ultimately causes them to uncharacteristically do wrong. While they may profess to believe in the worth, dignity and rights of mankind, they degrade and confine others. Famed World War II journalist Ernie Pyle best described a close analogy of this thought when he wrote about how American soldiers learned early during the war to transition from a belief of killing as sinful to a casual professionalism of killing as a craft.

The Hitchens’ theory that wish-thinking of a higher belief in religious dogma can corrupt us also applies to wish-thinking in politics. Americans have and will use fear and political wish-thinking to preserve the high belief of freedom while invading other nations, oppressing even our own citizens and denying our long-standing rights. President Franklin Roosevelt was flat wrong at the outbreak of World War II to confine Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. Democratic U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii is living testament today to such prejudice that prevented him from enlisting – that is, until our government faced a military manpower shortage. Then he was sent to the front lines to face the ultimate sacrifice.

With each passing day, the Bush White House tears another edge away from our fabric of carefully balanced American freedoms. Under the broad mantle of national security, federal government departments both domestic and abroad claim exemptions from the protections enshrined in our Constitution and defined in international agreements. Under Bush, the American government has retarded constitutional guarantees through warrantless wiretaps, indefinite imprisonment without trials and torture-like interrogation techniques. Once envied and revered around the world as the beacon of freedom, American ideals are now tarnished throughout the international community.

For the first time since World War II, persons have been detained in the name of security – sometimes for years without acknowledgment of their whereabouts and without legal counsel. They have been subjected to extremes of deprivation and torture techniques both in a war zone at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 as well as on American territory at Guantonamo, Cuba. In the eyes of foreign admirers who yearn for our freedoms, Americans are now hypocrites.

In years past, the American way of life needed no explanation. Our system of fair play and equality was the foundation and origin of all freedoms. Because equality was our beginning – not the end – of all arguments about law, life and human nature, it was also the beginning – but by no means the end – of all disputes about the constitution and justice. So it was no surprise last week when White House Press Secretary Dana Perino denied that secret memos written by the Justice Department in 2005 sanctioned torture. Yet, as time passes, more evidence to the contrary exists.

The New York Times described the 2005 memos as “an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The techniques consisted of extreme temperatures of heat and cold, water-boarding or simulated drownings, prolonged stress positions and isolation accompanied only by continuously played loud music. It does not matter that other nations had been calling these same techniques torture for decades.

Since the Bush administration claimed that these methods approved for use by the CIA were “not torture,” officials could parse words and maintain their deniability. Their narrow definition, unrecognized elsewhere, defined torture as “severe physical or mental pain or suffering that results in significant harm of significant duration, lasting months or even years.”

As a result, America’s bedrock principles of human rights and standing as a global leader in a respect for the rule of law continues to be undermined by their wish-thinking policies. An essential part of winning the war on terrorism and protecting our nation is to safeguard the ideals and principles that Americans hold dear: that torture is not acceptable and the constitution must be respected.

It is sad to think that Hitchens could be describing our current poisonous political climate in his anti-God book when he wrote of an “inescapable demand for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs subsisting largely on lies and fears.” Unfortunately, political wish-thinking will continue until we restore America’s standing as a nation committed to human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.