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What Have We Learned From the War on Terror?

George Packer takes a deep dive into the American perspective on war and human rights in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.  

“After a decade and a half, we still have no distance from the war on terror… The era has generated more shallow certitude than lasting insight, with most commentators too intent on justification or condemnation to explore the harder questions that the conflict raises. The instant wisdom that everything changed on 9/11 was later echoed by the assertion that nothing was ever the same after the Central Intelligence Agency waterboarded Abu Zubaydah. Does either claim hold up? How does the violence of recent years fit in the long history of political mayhem?”  

“There’s the well-known American hubris of adventurism, and there’s another kind, which sees our wrongs as dangers to the foundation of civilization. The Bush Administration tortured prisoners and created a legal fiction to justify it; other regimes torture prisoners and call it obtaining a confession from traitors who threaten national security. Is there really such a difference that the second can be dismissed as the way of the world, while the first is ‘not mere violation but something more profound,’ a crime so audacious that ‘general deterioration in the valuation of human life, such as was seen in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, could happen again’? This is exceptionalism in another guise. The belief that when America behaves like other countries the results are worse carries an assumption that America must be different, and in some sense better. The past fourteen years have been hard on almost every dogma, including that one.”

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