Why American Exceptionalism Means Torture

Vincent Lock photo mashup with  Mike Licht/ (Flickr Creative Commons)
Vincent Lock photo mashup with Mike Licht/ (Flickr Creative Commons)

When it comes to barbarism, there is no country on earth that can compete with North Korea. Things are so inhumane there and yet so misreported that I felt the urge to do something about it. I decided to write a book that would pull back the curtain on the DPRK, one light enough that even the most casual reader could sit down and fly through the story. I wanted the facts to be as accessible to as many people as possible, so I presented them in the digestible guise of Kim Jong Il’s life story. Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il serves as an introductory text to the country and its ways.

Writing a book affects any author in unforeseen ways. With Dear Reader, the first and most pervasive effect was to give me an ability to discern how common propaganda is in the United States. It makes perfect sense, of course: Koreans and Americans are human beings first. Techniques used in one country would work in the other, in any other, even if the referents and conclusions were diametrically opposed.

The second effect was a stridency against those who would make light of the North Korean situation and those who suffer there. It’s fair to say that I’m perturbed by the forthcoming Sony film The Interview, where Kim Jong Un is presented as a wacky, good-hearted kid. For years, North Koreans would bribe hungry border guards to allow them to escape to China. Recently, this “wacky good-hearted kid” changed policy. Now those border guards are legally allowed to keep their bribes—as long as they turn in the refugees to the government after the fact. Thus has one more avenue of escape been shut down. GLOL, what a kidder!

The last effect is a sort of literal political correctness, an unintentional rolling of the eyes when someone, say, compares former New York City Mayor Bloomberg to Kim Jong Il for limiting the size of soda cups. Likewise, I desperately want to turn SJW on Mike Huckabee, sitting him down and explaining to him that to claim North Korea has more freedom than the United States is wrong in every possible sense and even in several impossible ones.

To wit: Few Westerners realize that everyone in North Korea must stand before their peers once a week and confess any mistakes that they’d made—whereupon their peers declare the mistakes they’d witnessed of the confessors. Every North Korean has been doing this, confessing and accusing, every single week for decades. To compare the United States to the least-free nation in the world is both to denigrate our enormous liberties and to minimize the constant oppression faced north of the DMZ.

Then came the CIA report. For the first time since the Snowden revelations, I found the between the United States and North Korea to be valid. Not only were these comparisons valid, they were downright exact.

It is a source of great pride for the DPRK that such a small nation gets to give the finger to more powerful countries. They revel in the fact that they defy calls to liberalization from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and even China. What we regard as insane obstinacy and a counterproductive stubbornness—which, in the end, only hurts them—they regard as proof of both their strength and their moral superiority. All other nations play by a certain set of guidelines, they point out, but not North Korea. Let the other nations have their own principles, they proclaim. North Korea has the Juche idea as a philosophy to guide them. It’s a complete, comprehensive worldview for Koreans and from a Korean: the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. No other country is so united in one idea behind one leader, they boast. What is often described by Westerners as DPRK ultra-nationalism can easily be expressed by another term: exceptionalism.

It’s well understood that North Korea does a phenomenal job of keeping its populace in a state of ignorance regarding the outside world. But in my research I was surprised by how thoroughly the DPRK acknowledges and counters its international criticism. With a straight face, they claim that since they don’t use the term “forced labor camps,” such camps therefore don’t exist in the DPRK. And as for having the worst human-rights record in the world? Well, they assert that because “human rights are guaranteed by sovereign States, any attempt to interfere in others’ internal affairs, overthrow the governments and change the systems on the pretext of human rights issues constitutes violations of human rights.” In other words, criticizing the human-rights abuses of North Korea is itself a human-rights abuse.

This is the natural and logical consequence of allowing any government to decide for itself when and if human rights exist. The American reverence for human rights precedes the United States itself, being made explicit in the Declaration of Independence. Our consequent Constitution and, especially, the Bill of Rights inspired many other nations over the decades. After the horrors of World War II, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who was chosen to chair the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee.

I’m willing to believe for the sake of argument that torture is an effective mechanism of extracting information. In the same vein, no one would deny that, say, killing everyone who is currently incarcerated would result in significantly lowering the crime rate in the future. No one would deny it, but neither would anyone argue for it. It’s well understood that to argue for such a policy is to freely cede any semblance of morality, decency or humanity. The concept of human rights is there to tell us when the ends don’t justify the means.

What bothers me about the torture report is how familiar and how tortured the justifications for the CIA were. There wasn’t handwringing among the apologists, no sense of remorse in having to commit reprehensible acts for the sake of the greater good. For some there was pride in having the strength to do difficult things. For others there were simply shrugs and a slew of platitudes. “Tough times call for tough choices”—therefore we should drown people. Therefore we should shove broom handles into their asses. It was the allegedly liberal Chris Matthews who had perhaps the most dubious justification: “If anybody thinks us not torturing people is going to stop al-Qaeda from torturing people, you’re living in a crazy world.” By his logic, we should be flying F15s into Burj Dubai.

If these acts of torture needed to be done, there needed to be a sense of shame or guilt or embarrassment in doing them. But instead, just as in North Korea, there was only a sense of exceptionalism. America is somehow different from the rest of the world. We have to carry burdens that other nations don’t. Human rights don’t apply to humans once they’re in our custody, because reasons. After all, America is the best country in the world! It may well be true that we’re the best. But the best homes in the world don’t have much dirt—and when the occupants find any, they tend to get rid of it. They don’t tend to sweep it under their rugs and continue on as if it couldn’t be helped. It certainly isn’t a point of pride.

North Korea’s citizens are constantly fed lies intended to get the population to hate the United States. Kim Jong Il explicitly instructed that textbooks refer to “US imperialists” or “Yankee bastards” instead of mere “Americans,” so that the language itself became a tool of hostility. But now we’re in a position where American politicians are saying with a straight face that certain facts need to be suppressed because if other nations learned these facts, then those people who hate us for factual reasons. Apparently we no longer “hold these truths to be self-evident”—or for that matter, any universal truths whatsoever. When the facts themselves condemn you, it’s time to take a long hard look in the mirror and wonder whether exceptionalism can also mean exceptionally bad. TC mark

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