When General Douglas MacArthur liberated the country in 1945, my father remembers running after American jeeps and cheering wildly as American troops tossed out free cans of Spam. For him, the Americans were heroes, the antithesis of the abusive Japanese. Fifteen years later, when my parents landed in Boston with scholarships from MIT, America represented to them not only economic opportunity, but also generosity and decency.
My parents stayed in this country and became American citizens. My sisters and I were all born here. As we grew up, America’s power and prosperity continued to increase. By the end of the twentieth century, with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, U.S. supremacy appeared to be almost boundless.
Today, however, America’s place in the world seems much more precarious. New superpowers, such as China, are emerging. The United States is beleaguered on many fronts: its economy is shaken, its reputation has been tarnished, and its treasury has been depleted by hundreds of billions of dollars poured into a war it may not win.
All of this has critical implications for the United States with regard to the use of torture. Even apart from considerations of principle, America has an urgent strategic interest in reclaiming its reputation as a moral nation.
Throughout history, there have been only a tiny handful of hyperpowers: societies that amassed such unrivaled economic and military might that they essentially dominated the world. Rome, of course, is the most famous example. As today’s hyperpower, the United States is frequently compared to the Roman Empire, which also tried to wield its tremendous military power to pacify, “civilize,” and bring commerce and prosperity to weaker states and peoples.
And yes, Rome practiced torture. At the gladiator games, for example, criminals and slaves, including children, were shredded by wild beasts for the entertainment of roaring crowds.
Rome was hardly alone. The kings of Achaemenid Persia (arguably history’s first hyperpower, in existence from 550 BC to 330 BC) plucked out eyes, sliced off noses, and upholstered chairs with human skin. The Mongols, who conquered half the known world in the thirteenth century, poured molten silver into the eyes and ears of their enemies.
But America is not Rome, nor any of the hyperpowers that came before it. The sources of U.S. wealth and power are very different, and so is its relationship to the world it dominates.
In ancient times, empires grew rich through conquest and annexation. By contrast, America’s wealth flows from commerce and immigration. The key to its success has always been its ability to draw the most talented and enterprising people to its shores. Today, in a globalized economy where countries furiously compete for the most valuable human capital, America’s status as the magnet for the world’s best and brightest can no longer be taken for granted.
The hyperpowers of old also inhabited a world in which the concept of human rights was unknown. Today, such rights have been codified in international law and are almost universally recognized. Ancient empires could engage in torture or brutality without losing legitimacy. The United States cannot.
The case for torture is essentially a national security argument: that extreme interrogation techniques are necessary in a fight against global networks of terrorists in which the gathering of sensitive information is crucial. In the long view of history, this is a dangerously shortsighted argument. Our national security relies on far more than rounding up and questioning terrorist suspects.
American power in the twenty-first century depends on whether the United States can be the nation that my parents and many millions of other immigrants came to know: a country that stood for both strength and decency. If we lose that moral authority, America’s global dominance will be rejected by the billions of non-Americans over whom the United States projects its power. America’s ability to lead, let alone inspire, will be severely compromised. And in an increasingly competitive world economy, the most talented and skilled immigrants will look elsewhere, eroding the formula for America’s remarkable success that has worked for two centuries.
Many will say that America has never been the honorable nation it claims to be. That was not my parents’ view, and it is not mine. If America is to retain its preeminence in the years to come, it must be not only an economic and military hyperpower, but a moral hyperpower too.