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Sunday, June 13, 2004


The torture of losing moral high ground

LOS ANGELES -- John F. Kennedy was no saint as president -- and America is not God. But, indisputably, JFK did inspire countless people at home and around the world to aspire to a higher standard. When Kennedy implored Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," he was not suggesting torture.

That's the essence of an impassioned message from Theodore Sorensen, JFK's special counsel and gold-standard speechwriter. "Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn," he told graduates of The New School in a commencement speech in New York. "Today I weep for the country I love . . . this is a cry from the heart."

Sorensen penned many of JFK's famous speeches and was perhaps professionally closer to the assassinated president than anyone except brother Robert. Sorensen is a hard-core Democrat, to be sure, but his speech did not mention the current president or the notorious prison in Iraq by name.

Looking for higher ground on which to plant a new platform for America, Sorensen wrote: "The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict on us."

America needs to live in a world that admires "not only the bravery of our Marine Corps but the idealism of our Peace Corps," he said. We need to be respected, not reviled; we need to escape the moral swamp into which we might sink (from Enron to Abu Ghraib prison). For it is our own moral misconduct, Sorensen suggested, that fuels the ceaseless attacks on our troops and assists the recruiting of more terrorists to attack us anew.

From the Arab and Islamic perspective, America is anything but blameless in world history. Even Asians who love the United States know there's some truth to that. They know that the mistreatment and torture of prisoners by Americans is a throwback to the bad old days of our Cold War foreign policy.

It's a throwback to predemocracy days in Taiwan, when the Taiwan Garrison Command and the Bureau of Investigation arrested anyone they wished and treated them any way they desired.

It's a throwback to the predemocracy days of the KCIA in South Korea, which did whatever it wanted to alleged communists, unionists, whatever.

It's a throwback to the dictatorship days in Indonesia of Kopkamtib and BAKIN, a nasty pair of internal-security outfits with an exceptional appetite for noisy student groups criticizing the authoritarian regime.

Like Chile's DINA in the days of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, or Iran's SAVAK in the days of the shah, these Asian internal-security organizations, representing governments that had good relations with Washington, did not often practice the values of human rights and democracy that the U.S. then preached -- and still does.

But if our dreams today exceed the reality of the past, there is no time like the present to make a new, bold statement. "If we can but tear the blindfold of self-deception from our eyes and loosen the gag of self-denial from our voices," wrote Sorensen, "we can restore our country to greatness."

What can move whole mountains that mere military firepower cannot destroy? "Our greatest strength has long been not merely our military might but our moral authority," he said. "Our surest protection against assault from abroad has been not all our guards, gates and guns, or even our two oceans, but our essential goodness as a people."

Is it true that America is essentially good? The point is disputable, but Sorensen, the elegant writer, proffers more a important point. Whatever our past misdeeds (and they include Abu Ghraib), we must hold ourselves to the highest standard if we are to contribute to building a 21st-century world order demonstrably superior to that of the 20th. America is not the whole story to that; Asia can make a major contribution, as can the European Union. But if America is not part of that, it won't happen.

Americans understand, in their skin, that their country is off course. The polls are starting to show that. Yet Americans are not ready to assign blame (and the Bush administration appears prepared to accept none). But they know this country is at a fork in the road, and now is not the time for wrong turns.

"No military victory can endure unless the victor occupies the high moral ground," Sorensen told the students. There is, in fact, no other ground worth coveting more.

No matter how much oil or other riches may lie beneath, the true gold mine is the conquest of hearts and minds through honest persuasion and moral example. The U.S. is failing to do this at the moment. But, whatever our recent and past failures, it retains, I believe, the capability to rise to the challenge of history and secure that higher moral ground without which we will remain -- in Sorensen's words -- "in the deepest trouble of my lifetime."

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on Foreign Policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004, Tom Plate

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