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A tragic legacy

How a good vs. evil mentality destroyed the Bush presidency.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency," which will be published June 26. To read Greenwald's response to letters about this excerpt, visit his blog.

By Glenn Greenwald

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Read more: Books, Books Features, Glenn Greenwald


Salon image collage / Reuters photo

June 20, 2007 | We all remember how many religious wars were fought for a religion of love and gentleness; how many bodies were burned alive with the genuinely kind intention of saving souls from the eternal fire of hell.

-- Sir Karl Popper, twentieth-century British philosopher of science

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness -- who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil -- is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations -- moral, pragmatic, or otherwise -- on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.

Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.

Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone.

It is from these premises that the most amoral or even most reprehensible outcomes can be -- and often are -- produced by political movements and political leaders grounded in universal moral certainties. Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

These principles illuminate a central, and tragic, paradox at the heart of the Bush presidency. The president who vowed to lead America in a moral crusade to win hearts and minds around the world has so inflamed anti-American sentiment that America's moral standing in the world is at an all-time low. The president who vowed to defend the Good in the world from the forces of Evil has caused the United States to be held in deep contempt by large segments of virtually every country on every continent of the world, including large portions of nations with which the U.S. has historically been allied. The president who vowed to undertake a war in defense of American values and freedoms has presided over such radical departures from the defining values and liberties of this country that many Americans find their country and its government unrecognizable. And the president who vowed to lead the war for freedom and democracy has made torture, rendition, abductions, lawless detentions of even our own citizens, secret "black site" prisons, Abu Ghraib dog leashes, and orange Guantánamo jumpsuits the strange, new symbols of America around the world.

In sum, the great and tragic irony of the Bush presidency is that its morally convicted foundations have yielded some of the most morally grotesque acts and radical departures from American values in our country's history. The president who insists that he is driven by a clear and compelling moral framework, in which the forces of Good and Evil battle toward a decisive resolution, has done more than almost any American in history to make the world question on which side of that battle this country is fighting. The more convinced President Bush and his followers become of the unchallengeable righteousness of their cause, the fewer limits they recognize. And America's moral standing in the world, and our national character, continue to erode to previously unthinkable depths.

The Tools of the "Good"

In November 2006, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, that vested in the president the power to order individuals (including legal residents of the United States) to be detained and imprisoned indefinitely without having been charged with any crimes or provided with a forum to prove their innocence. In reality, all of the powers granted by the Congress with that legislation were already being exercised by the Bush administration in the absence of legal authority. Ever since 9/11, and without any Congressional authorization, the president has asserted the power to imprison anyone without being charged with a crime and even with no ability to contact the outside world. And he has so imprisoned even U.S. citizens, including José Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi.

The power to order people detained and imprisoned based solely on accusation is one of the most extraordinary and tyrannical powers any political leader can hold. One of the core rights established against the British king by the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century was that the king could not order subjects imprisoned except upon a finding of guilt arrived at in accordance with legal process. The Military Commissions Act thus literally vested in President Bush -- and in subsequent U.S. presidents -- a power no British king has possessed since 1244. The founders of the United States thoroughly objected to such tyrannical power. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1789 letter to Thomas Paine, "I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."

Beyond indefinite detentions, the Bush presidency has ushered in a host of practices that Americans have generally found to be unconscionable and that violate virtually every principle America has long endorsed. From admitted presidential lawbreaking, to the use of torture (or "rendering" our detainees to other countries for torture, including detainees we later admit were wholly innocent), to enlisting the resources of our foreign intelligence agencies (the NSA and CIA) to spy inside the U.S. and collect and maintain all sorts of personal data about American citizens, the Bush administration has seized and exercised powers that have long been anathema to what "America" has meant at its core.

Next page: Societies driven exclusively or primarily by a fear of avoiding Evil and minimizing risks are not free

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