Officials established black sites outside the United States to avoid running afoul of constitutional and statutory prohibitions against torture and the pervasive deprivations of due process. The government sent prisoners to Guantanamo for the same cynical reason. But the black sites and Guantanamo were not the only examples of how U.S. leaders avoided those strictures. So too was the practice of rendition , whereby the United States sent accused terrorists to “friendly dictatorships” renowned for using torture techniques that made even American conduct look mild. Those governments included Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in Egypt, and in an example of supreme irony given Washington’s current policy, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
The United States trashed fundamental American values—and basic standards of human rights—in waging the war on terror. Because the country faced a ruthless and brutal adversary, U.S. leaders apparently concluded that it was appropriate, indeed necessary, to adopt merciless and unethical tactics to defeat that adversary.
The war on terror is not the first time that the U.S. government succumbed to obliterating the nation’s professed moral principles. Even the wars against Native American tribes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries exhibited a similar tendency. Civilian leaders, military commanders and white civilians alike routinely cited atrocities that Native American fighters committed as a justification for using equally vicious measures.
During World War II, U.S. and Allied leaders approved blatant war crimes in the campaign against the Axis powers because those regimes were so irredeemably evil. That perception was true, but in the name of combatting that evil, the Allies committed atrocities of their own against innocent people. The massive civilian casualties inflicted during the bombing attacks on such cities as Dresden and Tokyo are ample testimony to the callousness that became the new norm. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sites that had little military importance, put an exclamation point on the moral corrosion. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration even emulated its Axis enemies is establishing concentration camps (albeit milder versions) to incarcerate Japanese‐Americans.
The outbreak of the Cold War against the Soviet Union prompted the United States to adopt not only morally ambiguous, but sometimes utterly sleazy, foreign policy tactics. Even as Washington justly condemned the Soviets for their interference in the internal affairs of other countries, the newly created CIA and other agencies routinely engaged in similar behavior. U.S. administrations were not above meddling in the domestic politics even of fellow liberal democracies, including France and Italy .