The return of the end of history
Without consequences, how can we divide the past from the present?
The first government of the Federal Republic of Germany was formed in 1949, two years removed from a brutal famine and a few more from the full flower of the Wirtschaftwunder, the “economic miracle” of the ensuing decade. Yet with a recovering economy and fledgling political institutions, West Germany approved a 1952 treaty issuing Holocaust reparations, first to the state of Israel and later directly to survivors in the form of pensions. That regime continues to this day. Although denazification proceeded haltingly, Germans saw senior Nazi party members tried and executed at Nuremberg, and no modern state has been as zealous to accept responsibility for atrocity and pursue a policy of nie wieder. Never again.
The obvious counterexample here is America’s own response to its foundational atrocity. The meekness of Reconstruction, a refusal of collective responsibility, and the dismissal of the case for reparations have allowed echoes of the violence of slavery to sound throughout our history. I have no authority to fully explore those consequences already brilliantly explicated by black scholars and no wish to rank genocide by scale of human suffering. But I have in mind a much more recent example that may warp history in a similar way.
Depending on your commitment to social media oneupsmanship, you may have been somewhere between shocked and unsurprised to learn that Gina Haspel was put forward to fill the spot vacated by Mike Pompeo at the helm of the CIA. Gina Haspel ran a black site CIA prison in Thailand where she directed the waterboarding of at least one Al-Qaeda operative in 2002 and then subsequently destroyed 92 interrogation tapes containing who knows what further horrors. And further horrors were well within the realm of belief. A 2014 Senate Intelligence report discovered interrogation “strategies” at Guantanamo that included up to 180 consecutive hours of sleep deprivation, a man chained standing to a wall for 17 days, and sexual violation. Haspel is thus far unrepentant about her tenure as commandant of an illegal prison, and it has not hurt her career overmuch. Afterwards, she joined the newly created National Clandestine Service and was appointed its director by no less a Resistance luminary than John Brennan.
The reaction to the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser was, if equally unsurprising to the left, an occasion for undisguised terror. Bolton is a diplomat only in a reading of Mother Theresa’s generosity. A man of such raw political intelligence that he managed to fail Senate confirmation as Ambassador to the UN even under Republican control, Bolton is committed above all to unilateral American invasion in place of what’s often been euphemistically called foreign policy. Especially on the eve of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, the selection of Bolton was purpose-built to lead us into another devastating, and possibly final, war.
“Bolton is a diplomat only in a reading of Mother Theresa’s generosity.”
A pervasive feeling of unreality is nothing new in the (type the words) administration of Donald Trump. But the cameo appearances of these two Bush-era stalwarts were the first developments that made me stumble into people and demand “what year is it?!” in classic time-traveler fashion. It didn’t help that just weeks previously, Trump reignited the hoary argument against violent videogames, which hadn’t been prosecuted in lay circles since the 90s.
But how were these monsters even in a position to show their faces in polite society, much less achieve high office? For the simple reason that in 2009, after a grinding five years of occupation and insurgency at a hideous human cost and a tragic economic one, no one was prosecuted, convicted, or even so shamed that they might prefer to retire from public life. Instead they seized on more lucrative private sector careers, continued to influence policy at lobbying shops, or made strategic retreats to the Republican government-in-exile of the Heritage Foundation. They were spared the consequences, and we were spared, and denied, a national reckoning over a world-historical atrocity that we, a nation with more than our fair share, had perpetrated. The Iraq war. Barack Obama wanted to heal the country; it was his hamartia. Sometimes in order to heal, you need surgery.
For a moment, it seemed like there might be consequences, at least mild political ones. Trump savaged both Jeb and Hillary on Iraq in the debates, one incapable of admitting the mistake for fraternal reasons, the other unbalanced by her support of it. No one believes he criticized the war before it was politically useful to do so, but he sensed something in his lizard brain, which is the entirety of it. Some change in humidity or pressure.
“Sometimes in order to heal, you need surgery.”
But because society at large never sent the message “war criminals bad,” it felt to Trump and millions of others like the mistake was Iraq in particular. It was the choice of country, rather than military adventurism, occupation, the surveillance state, and torture in themselves. From his braindead vice-signaling about waterboarding during the campaign, it was always clear that Trump had learned nothing from Iraq, and probably nothing at all about anything since the 80s. As a result, Trump and the entire foreign policy establishment, Democratic and Republican, believe today that each country to grace with American air power is sui-generis, the only calculation being the potential return in unquantifiable deterrence.
What if we had seen CIA operators perp-walked, lawyers disbarred, generals forced into disgraced retirement? What if journalists who uncritically passed on sham intelligence found themselves unemployable? What if W. and Cheney actually couldn’t visit Europe for fear of justice in the Hague? Would that have failed to turn the country towards repentance? Would that have shaken the endowed chairs of the war’s most unashamed defenders? Would John Yoo be teaching at Berkeley?
Wouldn’t that have influenced even our worst citizens? Wouldn’t even Trump, in his own dim way, perceive that change in environmental conditions? Would we have Trump at all?
And wouldn’t we admit, to ourselves if not to others, that we wanted the war? We were hurt and angry, and it felt good to return that hurt to others. We did it and we’re sorry, for what little that’s worth.
Now after seventy years of turning and facing their capacity for horror, Germany’s assumption of guilt is beginning to crack. It coincides, maybe significantly, with the end of living memory of the Holocaust. Maybe a single lifetime is the shelf-life of shared contrition. Alternative fur Deutschland is now the third-largest party in the German Bundestag, approaching the success of far-right parties in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, all countries without their own national reckonings.
“Maybe a single lifetime is the shelf-life of shared contrition.”
But if history is the foreclosure of some possibilities and the opening of others, for seventy years, Germany had a history. Guilt is a small price to pay for a history of our own.