Our Reputation Matters

Earlier this year, I watched Roberto Rossellini's classic 1945 film, "Rome: Open City" ("Roma, città aperta"), for the first time. Set in Nazi-controlled Rome in 1944, there is a scene in which a Roman Catholic priest who is working for the Resistance is taken prisoner and tortured by a Gestapo officer. (I guess I should have warned that this would be a "spoiler alert," but if you're not going to watch this great film because you already know some of the plot points . . .) The German officer is portrayed as cold-blooded, enjoying his task, and sneering at the plight of both his immediate victim and the people the priest is trying to help. It was, in many ways, a familiar scene from dozens of WWII movies. The Nazis are inhuman, cruel, and beyond redemption.

As I watched that scene, which is designed to provoke revulsion and discomfort in the audience, I felt all of the usual emotions one feels when watching such films; but I also felt a different kind of discomfort, one that I had never felt before. Whereas it had almost always been possible, as a U.S. citizen, to watch such a staged re-enactment of inhumanity with a sense of moral comfort -- a sense that we are watching what other people do -- for the first time I thought, "That's how the rest of the world now sees us." In the most visceral sense, it occurred to me that we had become the bad guys, not the good guys.

In the months since then, I have been pondering whether my discomfort really matters. I could only imagine Dick Cheney offering his patented retort: "So?" Finally, last week, a New York Times editorial captured the essence of what made me so uncomfortable. In "The Price of Our Good Name," the editors pointed out that "[m]ost sensible governments cannot see past Guantánamo to even recall America’s long history as a defender of human rights and democratic values." Moreover, they offered a convincing argument that being seen as the bad guy -- even (or especially) in a dangerous world that requires difficult choices -- costs us as a nation. Arguing that the U.S. prison in Guantanamo must be closed, they suggested that doing so "would make other countries more likely to cooperate. The taint of Guantánamo is so great that right now even close allies will not consider resettling prisoners who should be set free because they committed no crimes of any kind. There may be at least 60 of these detainees at Gitmo. Selected countries might also be willing to take back their own nationals to stand trial."

On one level, of course, this is obvious. Trust matters. (We are also re-learning this painful lesson in the financial markets, but I digress.) Going it alone does not work. It is not just Gitmo. Having lost our moral compass on so many issues, the U.S. finds itself unable to lead and unable to secure cooperation from those who might join us in making the world a better place. The greatest hope in which we need to be able to believe is the hope that we can become the good guys again. President-Elect Obama faces no more important challenge.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan