12/16/2014 12:03 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

A Tortured Path: Is This Who We Are, Who We Want to Be?

For anyone who has been even remotely paying attention over the past dozen years the conclusions released in the Senate Intelligence report on torture are old news. The United States has used torture, has lied about its effectiveness, and protected those who prosecuted its use with vigor, so why the big deal about the report? Well, the big deal is the corrosive effect it has had upon a growing crisis of confidence many Americans have with respect to government leaders and institutions. And that cuts to the very core of the dysfunctional funk that breeds distrust, mistrust, and alienation in a system designed as a representative democracy.

When authority figures can operate with impunity and seemingly make up the rules as they see fit with no fear of accountability or penalty the seeds of autocracy, oligarchy, fascism, and, yes, royalty take root. Today we as a society struggle with this in matters as large as foreign affairs and wars, to matters as localized as our experiences with out of control law enforcement agencies and the legal system.

Who among us does not have a horror story or two about mistreatment and/or the simple lack of humanness when dealing with the local meter maid, traffic enforcement officer, state trooper or judge? If you are a minority it is difficult to find someone in your community who has not suffered the indignity of profiling or the fear of a random interrogation. If you are an undocumented immigrant you live in constant fear for your family of imminent deportation. And the most recent examples of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland underscore the deadly seriousness that accompanies a wholesale and collective acquiescence in swapping civil liberties for public safety.

In the wake of 9/11 we as a society surrendered many of the bedrock values and convictions that were the heart and soul of America. The overreaction to that tragedy masterminded by the heartless and vile Dick Cheney and Okayed by a clueless George W. Bush set the stage for a ruthless repudiation of the Geneva Conventions by a country that prided itself on its adherence to the principles of justice and freedom. I have written on many occasions over the years that Cheney and his henchmen should have been tried as war criminals. But over the years he has continued to defend his tortured decision-making and shamelessly bashed opponents, even in the face of evidence that they had not worked.

Obama decided early on not to prosecute these blatantly illegal tactics. Even under the most generous terms his failure to do so reinforced the cynical narrative that a lack of moral authority only serves to bolster the real evildoers. So financial industry titans who were directly responsible for perpetrating economic warfare that nearly brought the economy and financial system to its knees were not only not brought to justice, but were rewarded for their nefarious deeds through bailouts and severance packages.

Quite simply: Torture is wrong; financial misconduct is wrong; murder is wrong; and war under false pretenses is treason. These are immutable truths, or at least they should be. When an already suspicious and scared populace is slapped in the face with double standards and lack of a clear outline of what is right and what is wrong (especially when the rules for the rich are different from those who are not), cynicism, anger, frustration and irrational behavior are the beneficiaries.

The extreme polarization in our society today is a direct result of the lack of conviction, both as a set of principles or prosecution for committing crimes. In my book, The Evolution of a Revolution, I lay out six general principles for setting the country on an appropriate course for redemption. They include: reinstituting the value of public service, making government work, long-term thinking, balancing public and special interests, statesmanship, and removing the corrupting influence of money in politics.

If we do not recalibrate our conceptions of what we are and should be we will continue to drive a stake into the heart of the American experiment. We must hold people accountable for transgressions against common sense, intellect, and personal dignity lest we are crushed under the weight of our own greed and ignorance. The report issued has long tentacles indeed and reminds us that all actions have consequences and many are unforeseen.