There is no doubt that America’s “high road” has eroded since 9/11. Americans have long been proud of our humane behavior in times of war and in our treatment of war criminals. We liked to believe that our American “rule of law” could be extended to embrace our enemies in times of war. Our reasons were part idealism, part chauvinism, and part a belief in our “exceptionalism”.
Since the events of 9/11, our moral approach that once extended the rights of most Americans to our enemies has taken quite a hit and is part of the “America is slipping” dialogue we have been hearing everywhere. As far as I can see 9/11 is the event that caused America to abandon our principled treatment of those who oppose America and which has even turned American citizens into terrorist suspects. Guantanamo, a prison where terrorists have been incarcerated without trial for over a decade, stands as the physical symbol of this erosion. G. W.’s Patriot Act, which basically allowed all sorts of domestic spying, hit a sour note with many Americans and further eroded our past idealistic code of war. Enhanced interrogation techniques like water boarding, used extensively at the height of our fears about terrorists, are once again considered beyond the pale.
Obama is not immune from adding to the erosion of our 20thcentury war codes either. He has used drones for targeting enemies, which many feel is putting war at too far a remove in that the attacker (us) is not physically present at the site of the attack and the person targeted has no warning that the attack will occur. This challenges our sense of fair play but saves the lives of many American soldiers.
Obama also allowed an American “turncoat” who joined al Qaeda to be assassinated without a trial and, just recently a white paper has come to light that discusses the rationale that allows our government to assassinate “traitors” without trial.
As we circumvent more and more of our traditional rules of war, we find ourselves in the midst of an American identity crisis, and while we must weigh our values against the tactics we must adopt to survive as a nation in a hostile world, it doesn’t sit well with us. We liked being on the high road in war, even though we, apparently, were often taking a much lower road in “diplomacy”. We will probably have to get over ourselves for the most part and accept that a new style of war requires new rules. That doesn’t mean that anything goes and we must continue to push back against rules that undermine the philosophies we hold dear.