What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
After four years and forty million dollars, a Senate committee released a report last week summarizing its findings and views of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture against alleged terrorists held captive by the agency in hopes of extracting useful information.
The report contains a number of startling (but perhaps unsurprising) revelations, such as sleep deprivation, forced rectal hydration, threats made against detainees’ family members, extensive waterboarding, knowingly innocent people still being held and tortured, and a concerted effort by the CIA to evade transparency and accountability.
The reactions to this report have been voluminous and varied in their degree of dismissal or objection. One commentary on the issue, however, encapsulates a response that I believe to be held widely by Americans. It was passionately offered up by Andrea Tantaros of Fox News who justified torture because it was “what the American public wanted” the Bush administration to do in order “to keep us safe.” Dismissing the report as being solely “about politics,” she launched into a jingoistic spectacle of American cheerleading.
“The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome,” she said, then arguing that “the reason [Democrats] want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are.”
I cannot help but draw scriptural correlation to current events, so, let’s have at it.
The prophet Nephi, speaking in his trademark plainness, wrote of a future time in which “the kingdom of the devil must shake, and they which belong to it must needs be stirred up unto repentance.” In that day—our day—some would be stirred up to anger, full of rage. Others, Nephi says, would be pacified, lulled away into carnal security—in Thomas Jefferson’s words, embracing the “calm of despotism.” The mentality of these individuals is reflected in a simple statement, indicative of an entire mindset: “All is well in Zion.”
Of course, this position of pride (with its corresponding arrogance and abdication of personal responsibility) is not merely a byproduct of the modern age. We observe its patterns and effects in the lives and times of Nephi’s posterity. It is, as President Uchtdorf notes, “the original sin, for before the foundations of this earth, pride felled Lucifer, a son of the morning ‘who was in authority in the presence of God.'”
“If pride can corrupt one as capable and promising as this,” Uchtdorf says, “should we not examine our own souls as well?”
The Andrea Tantaroses of the world would have us overlook our mistakes and justify our misdeeds by comparing ourselves to others and esteeming them as less “awesome” than us. While this woman spoke in absolutes—”we are awesome”—she likely meant, as so many others do, that we are simply more awesome than others. Government violating your rights? Put up with it, citizen—because where else would you go? Freedoms vanishing? At least they’re not vanishing as fast as they are elsewhere! Be grateful that the tyranny you are seeing spring up around you is not a deluge. Bask gleefully in the softness of your enslavement.
This pride by comparison was most notably exhibited by the Zoramites. While today propagandists claim we are “awesome” from digital media platforms, they built a physical platform to proclaim a similar message.
“We believe that [God] has elected us,” they said, “that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by [God’s] wrath down to hell.” For this perceived comparative advantage they repeatedly thanked God “that we are a chosen and a holy people.”
Alma and his brethren, serving as missionaries among this group, were “astonished beyond all measure” at this self-aggrandizing pride-fest. President Uchtdorf suggested that we should examine if we are guilty of similar behavior. As one data point, consider recent polling after the release of the CIA torture report and the corresponding media firestorm. The general response by Americans to the reports of brutality and inhumanity was a collective “meh.”
The prophet Mormon knew that things in his day were anything but awesome. He extensively documented a long list of atrocities implemented by prideful people excusing away their wickedness. It was done to show what people who are “not awesome” do. It was done to help us learn from their mistakes so as not to repeat them.
Have we learned from—and avoided repeating—those mistakes?
The self-aggrandizing status quo is clearly comfortable for people who otherwise would have to admit their incorrect beliefs—or worse, their complicity. Thus we see widespread whitewashing of wickedness using deceitful, dismissive claims that the criticisms are irrelevant; one sees no need to change when he feels that he already is “awesome.”
We Latter-day Saints are held to a higher standard in this regard, being called as a peculiar people who have made covenants to live more closely in accordance with God’s laws. And yet we remain, like the Israelites who we love to criticize for their misguided waywardness, an idolatrous people who are under condemnation. We, of all people, must recognize and reject even the semblance of self-deception. We are not awesome because we are not acting like it.
Andrea Tantaros was evidently not upset that the torture happened—that the rights of innocent people were violated or that the government approved and implemented inhumane treatment against suspects. What she was upset about was that the conversation about the CIA torture was being driven by individuals of a differing political ideology, and more generally, that the conversation was happening at all. “This makes us look bad,” she argued. “And all this does is have our enemies laughing at us.”
Laughing? If I’m an Afghani father whose teenage son was randomly rounded up by a bounty hunter in the chaotic aftermath of the American occupation, detained for over a decade without being able to contact me, and now I have further evidence—admissions from the U.S. government, no less—that my son was tortured at the hands of this foreign government, my emotional response would not be laughter. I would be uncontrollably outraged.
But we should not concern ourselves primarily with what our “enemies” think about our actions. We should be concerned with whether God approves of our behavior. “What Would Jesus Do?” is a common question sporadically pondered by Christians, but very infrequently applied in the context of public policy. Would Jesus condone the actions of the CIA? I doubt it. (That tells you, tangentially, whose side Dick Cheney is on…)
The scriptures speak of “perilous times” in these latter days when “men shall be lovers of their own [awesome?] selves,” and point out the Pharisaical trend of “lov[ing] the praise of men more than the praise of God.” Paul likewise noted that many would “after their own lusts… heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” and “turn away their ears from the truth, and… be turned unto fables.”
The allegation of our collective awesomeness is unfounded. It is, rather, a fable—a concocted myth designed to ameliorate our conscience and circumvent conversation about apologies and reform. Latter-day Saints should instead wholeheartedly and vocally reject modern-day Rameumptoms.
When Moses was given a grandiose vision by God, what was his takeaway? “Now… I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” The Andrea Tantaroses of the world could stand to replicate this humility and recognize our faults and weaknesses. Chances are, you and I need to as well.