‘We did things that we tried Japanese soldiers for war crimes for after World War II,” independent Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King said last month on CNN, referring to the revelations of the post-9/11 torture of prisoners in the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

This statement has stuck with me.

I have no illusions about America and Americans always being a force for good. We have many shameful episodes in our history, and there are many who needlessly suffer today. But I like to think that we’re getting better and that a desire to build a more just and free society is a fundamental aspect of our national character.

Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan used the biblical phrase “a city upon a hill” to describe our country. Some fault this as jingoism and unjustified exceptionalism, but I like to think of it as an aspirational statement. Maybe we’re not really that shining city – the light of the world – but let’s try to act like it, and countless lives will be better for our efforts.

That’s why King’s comparison to a war we fought 70 years ago is particularly troubling. I would have thought that we would have gotten better in that time, and certainly not be doing worse.

Some would say that we excessively romanticize the Second World War, and I agree.

I’ve recently been reading “Road to Tunis,” a book by journalist David Rame, who was embedded with my grandfather’s battalion in North Africa during what he calls “the first – the essential intervention by the United States in the European war.”

The book describes dust, toil and hardship, punctuated by unspeakable horror, often suffered by civilians. It’s a contrast with how World War II is often portrayed in the media now: as a straightforward conflict with clear moral lines.

This collective sense of moral unambiguity is why Nazis still seem to make up half the bad guys in action movies and video games, even 70 years later.

The reality of history is more complicated, and difficult decisions had to be made by American leaders facing an existential threat, but they never implemented a systematic program of torture. It would have been both morally wrong and completely ineffective.

“You don’t get people to talk by beating them or waterboarding or anything of that nature,” 94-year-old Rudolph Pins, a former interrogator of Nazis for an initiative that predated the CIA, recently told CBS News.

That assessment was borne out by the Senate’s recent findings about the CIA’s interrogation of detainees during the Bush era.

“The report, in excruciating detail, makes clear that (torture) did not create actionable intelligence,” King said in an interview with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.

It’s now clear that CIA officials knew what they were doing was wrong. The report details how they lied to the media, Congress, the Department of Justice and the White House about the extent of their activities.

So why does this matter now? The interrogation programs in question were wound down years before the writing of this report.

Because, as King put it, we’ve seen an “explosion of the torture apologists, who say it really wasn’t torture and it got great results. That means it could happen again.”

From Rush Limbaugh to Laura Ingraham to the hosts on Fox News, we’ve seen claims that the torture of prisoners was justified. Other conservative pundits have tried to downplay the CIA’s actions or attack those who have revealed the truth.

Just this week, the new head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, launched an effort to round up full copies of the report on detainee abuses sent to executive branch departments and the White House (only the executive summary has been publicly released so far) in an effort to prevent the public from ever accessing the full contents of the report.

This is an effort to drag us backward, to make acceptable actions we refused to take even when fighting the Nazis.

As the new Congress gets underway and these issues persist, King’s leadership will be even more important. Mainers should be proud of the work he has done to call out these abuses, and we should be glad that he views his role as one of 100 U.S. senators in the context of history and is willing to speak in stark terms about our nation’s moral standing.

As King put it last month, “This is not America. This is not who we are.”

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: miketipping

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