Look Back in Anger
I suspect the debate over torture, atomic weaponry, and morality is rapidly reaching the point of diminishing returns, but I did want to say one last thing on the subject before moving on. For the record, I do not think Truman (or Bush) is a Nazi; I do recognize that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was an extremely difficult one, made under incredibly difficult circumstances.
Having said that, moral complexity doesn’t allow us to abdicate our moral responsibility, and one of the striking things about this exchange is how little we argue about a decision that was – at the very least – incredibly controversial. Truman incinerated two Japanese cities whose value as military targets was marginal at best, and yet the chorus of would-be revisionists is not exactly overwhelming. The decision to use the atom bomb simply isn’t discussed in polite company – something that doesn’t bode well for future discussions about torture.
John Stewart’s debate with Cliff May illustrates this point rather neatly. May uses Hiroshima as a reference point not because destroying a city in the midst of a half-century old war somehow illuminates our current dilemma over detainee treatment – he uses it because he knows the example of President Truman will automatically elicit a sympathetic reaction from his audience. After decades of relentlessly mythologizing a president whose tenure was decidedly mixed, one questionable moral decision is used to obscure another, all because we simply aren’t willing to talk about the dark underbelly of American history.
The parallels between the debate over atomic weapons and the debate over torture are ominous, as Bush apologists laud the interrogators as heroes while our political establishment expresses regrets but nonetheless insists it’s time to move on. My response is simple: No. Not here. Not this time.