Fifty years from now, when a history of the 9/11 attacks can be written from a suitable distance, it probably will be observed that the chief damage done to this nation wasn't the destruction of landmark buildings or even the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, but the further searing of our collective conscience.
We devolved from — in our own opinions, at least — the most civilized country on Earth, the chief guardians of human rights, to medieval torturers.
Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee finally released its report on the government's use of systematic abuse against suspected terrorists, dozens of whom were later discovered to be innocent.
We've long known about Abu Ghraib, and about the Bush-Cheney White House memos declaring "enhanced interrogation techniques" lawful (although they violated 200-plus years of American precedents, as well as international laws we'd promoted).
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Turns out the post-9/11 torture program went beyond anything we'd previously been told, both in scope and in sadism.
Yet it appears that, other than outraged op-eds here and there from squawking pundits, the collective American response has been a shrug of the shoulders.
In a CBS poll, almost half of us (49 percent) said techniques such as waterboarding are sometimes OK; only 36 percent said torture is never justifiable.
Some 73 percent of Republicans — hey, isn't this the party with the devoutly Christian base? — think torturing prisoners can be justified.
Maybe we should survey Jesus, himself a victim of torture.
Throughout our history, there have been isolated cases in which rogue military outfits or intelligence agents mistreated prisoners.
But the U.S. policy has always been no torture, under any circumstances. We'll fight you like the devil as long as you're wielding arms, but once you're disarmed and in custody, we act humanely.
We've faced existential threats infinitely worse than a handful of cave-dwelling extremists. We've survived the invading British, a domestic army of secessionist rebels, the Japanese and German militaries of World War II.
None of those drove us to sell our souls. But Al-Qaida did? It's stunning, and it's even more stunning how few of us seem to care.
Many veteran interrogators say torture fails as a tool to uncover enemy plots. But that's beside the point. The point is, it's immoral, illegal and depraved. We're better than that. Or should be.
You don't have to be an alarmist to wonder what has happened to us. Consider these other issues — some related to 9/11, some not:
■ The National Security Agency operates a mind-bogglingly extensive program of spying on U.S. citizens' electronic communications. They're not just listening in on suspected terrorists or enemy states. They monitor all of us.
■ Under a post-9/11 program the Washington Post calls "stop and seize," police have taken "hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes," the Post reports. "Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back."
It's totally kosher and it's big business in the police world.
If you're pulled over for, say, speeding, and if you're carrying a comparatively large wad of cash, the police can simply take it and keep it. No warrant. No charges. No trial. They then use your money to buy an armored Humvee or a crate of automatic rifles. According to the Post, "298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008."
If you can ultimately prove you weren't doing anything wrong, you might — might — get your cash back. Someday. If you're lucky. And if you sign a waiver promising not to sue the cops. (Seriously.)
■ The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 is similar, but it involves money you deposit in a bank account. As the New York Times explains, the act was intended to snare criminals who launder money by making large deposits that don't quite reach the $10,000 level, when banks have to report deposits to the feds. Crooks sometimes keep their deposits near $9,900, say.
If the IRS even suspects that you're one of these hucksters, it can swoop in and, without notice or a criminal complaint, seize your bank account. The New York Times says only 20 percent of these seizures turn out to involve criminal wrongdoers.
Eighty percent of the time, the IRS's targets are owners of small businesses or law-abiding citizens. Yet they have to fight their way excruciatingly through the legal system to prove their innocence. Sometimes, by the time they win their appeals, they've lost their businesses or savings.
■ Although crime rates have fallen to record lows, our justice system imprisons 2.3 million people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That's more per capita than any country in the world.
By one estimate, 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary or segregated confinement, where typically they're locked alone in tiny cells 23 hours a day. Some remain in solitary for years.
This isolation causes profound mental breakdowns among many inmates.
Meanwhile, teenagers as young as 13 or 14, convicted as adults under get-tough-on-crime laws, are thrown into adult prisons, where they're five times more likely to be raped than in juvenile institutions.
Our nation and many of the people who run it seem to have lost their common sense and compassion. A lot, but not all, of this loss stems from 9/11.
Maybe Al-Qaida won.
My earnest prayer for the New Year is that the Lord will once again restore our sanity and soften our hearts.