by AndrewMc | 8/10/2009 07:00:00 AM
As historians we tend to view the news and current events in a different way than others. Not better, just different. Sometimes we'll think of the way it relates to our own research, sometimes a news story will recall some important—or obscure—historical event. Sometimes we'll see a clear-cut relationship between what's in the news and an important facet of the American experience.

Such was the case this morning, as I read that "Iran's Police Chief Acknowledges Prisoner Abuse."

Now, it shouldn't come as any surprise to us that the Iranians are abusing and torturing political prisoners. They've done it for years, and the regime is built on violence and brutality.

But . . .

The article helped me coalesce several disparate threads that have been rattling around the recesses of my brain. On the one hand I was thinking about Valtin's post from late June on the torture-training program the U.S. government sponsored at the SERE school.

I was also thinking, naturally, about U.S. torture of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay for the past eight years (including a teenager), as well as the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

And I was thinking of John Winthrop.

In the sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," Winthrop outlined his vision for America as a place where colonists would create a covenant with God that would allow the community to serve as a beacon to the world. Probably because there wasn't much original in the sermon, few at the time paid much attention. Nor did subsequent generations pay much attention to Winthrop's anti-democratic views. But his "City on a Hill" speech, as it came to be known, gained wide acceptance among Americans, who secularized and transformed it into the notion of American exceptionalism and the idea that the United States should act as a standard-bearer for morality in the world.

One can see this in everything from the Founders' pronouncements on the meaning of the American Revolution, the idea of manifest destiny and Indian removal, Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick," Woodrow Wilson making the world "safe for democracy," FDR's "Arsenal of Freedom," and a whole host of post-WW2 policies used to justify American intervention.

Through all of it, the United States claimed a kind of moral superiority based on a history slathered in a deep coat of sugar. And in many cases the U.S. could get away with it because the counter-examples were obscure, or the counter-arguments didn't quite fit. When some argued that imperialism in the Philippines in the early 20th century recalled British colonialism, the counter-argument focused on bringing American democracy and western culture to barbarians.

But not so with the Iranians. As a regime that is likely pursuing nuclear weapons, that has ambitions of regional domination of one kind or another, and that openly calls for the extermination of a major U.S. ally, Iran is no friend of the United States. The U.S. has applied sanctions, it has sponsored Iran's foe in a brutal war, and has applied all kinds of international pressure at every opportunity and for every transgression.

The current situation in Iran is by no means clear-cut. The election had a number of irregularities and forgeries, and seems to have been rigged. We'll never know for sure. What is certain is that neither of the candidates is a friend of the United States. Yet Americans have closely identified with and celebrated Mir-Hossein Mousavi, despite his anti-American rhetoric in the past, his defense of the taking of American Embassy hostages in 1980, and his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Recent revelations that Iran tortured and abused political prisoners affiliated with street protests in support of Mousavi would seem to provide the United States with a chance to put some pressure on the Iranian government. Perhaps some kind of pressure could be exerted over these revelations that could lead to some negotiations on other issues. Maybe not, but who knows? Perhaps the revelations of torture could lead somewhere.

After all, the United States carries some moral suasion in the world. When we speak in world affairs it is with a moral voice, a kind of power that comes not from our military or economic might. It comes from our background as the "City on a Hill."

And on this subject we can speak with a particular moral authority, because the United States does not torture.

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