The Gina Haspel Nomination Made Me Think

CIA director nominee Gina Haspel
CIA director nominee Gina Haspel

So the Gina Haspel thing is weighing heavy upon me, but not for the reasons that you might think.

Make no mistake, I think she’s awful.  But much like the fallout from the #metoo movement, her nomination for CIA director has made me do a metric ton of self-evaluation of past actions and attitudes, and I’m really not liking some of the stuff I’ve found in there.

To be perfectly honest, this onslaught of self-reflection has forced me to have some compassion for her, in an extremely awkward and roundabout way.  It’s made me feel the shame and revulsion that comes with sympathy for the devil, because I’m not sure I would have had the strength of character to do anything other than what she did.

I hope, now, with the person I’ve become, and the strength of the life I’ve just recently begun living (a transformation powered by the mistakes I’ve made and the desire not to repeat them), that I would have taken a different path than she did.

But I’m not really sure.

In post, it’s really easy to retroactively ask other people to do the right things for the right reasons.   And with all things hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to make those theoretical decisions once the consequences are known commodities.  But it’s never that easy in the moment, when the difficulty setting gets ramped to 100, and you wind up faced with two bad options and no understanding of how badly the wrong move might haunt you for a year, or two, or for the foreseeable future.  Or, in this case, for nearly two decades.

I spent the past couple weeks railing against Gina Haspel on Twitter (@wade_dunham, by the way), and savaging the weak-kneed Dems that capitulated to red state electoral pressure and tripped over themselves singing the praises of her Agency bona fides.  But I did it from the safe distance of known consequence, and I never once insinuated myself behind her eyes and into her immediate worldview in the days following 9/11.

I looked myself in the figurative mirror tonight, and I asked the question that I had failed to ask throughout the entire process:  would you be any different than her if the roles were reversed?

And, even in the world of known consequences, I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.

But I’m an angry person.  That’s my worst quality, and the one that fuels me the most.  Over a lifetime of mistakes made and subsequently avoided, I’ve learned how to govern it instead of letting it govern me.  And I’ve learned how to channel it into something positive:  I’ve repurposed it into righteous anger, for which progressive activism has become a viable and justifiable outlet.  As luck would have it, this current administration has given me no shortage of targets for my rage, and no shortage of causes where I can put that energy to work.

Which brings me full circle to Gina Haspel, the latest villain-of-the-moment brought into the sharp relief of public view by the vetting breakdowns in the Presidential Personnel Office, and the current focal point of my rage.  She is also, unfortunately, the inflection point where my righteous rhetoric teeters on the edge of hypocrisy.

I was 22 when the Twin Towers came down, formed emotionally enough to process that we had been collectively violated but not balanced with the dispassionate intellectualism I can mostly summon on command now.  I was angry, because that’s really the only thing you can feel when you watch three thousand people die on live television.   And when the newly-minted Department of Homeland Security started scooping up brown people that looked a lot like the nineteen guys that attacked my country and started rendering them to blacksites and Gitmo, I didn’t question it.  When the question of torture came up, I was very much in the camp of “any means necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”  Like most people in those dark days, I was willing to cede morality in favor of security, and that lazy attitude opened the door for people like Gina Haspel to do some really horrible things to other members of the human race.

As the devil’s advocate, I’ll stand by the contention that she undoubtedly played a vital role in the CIA efforts to keep us all safe.  I will grant her that.  It’s well-documented, despite the destroyed interrogation tapes, that she was willing to go to great lengths, including “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (which is the most depressingly antiseptic way to describe the horror that is waterboarding) in order to go get the bad guys where they live.  She was willing to do the awful things that none of the rest of us were willing to do ostensibly for the greater good of America writ large.

Twenty-two-year-old me was on board with it, rationalizing that the pain and humiliation of torture was actually far less than what the bad guys deserved after what they did to Americans.  There’s something nasty to unpack in that sentence, when it comes to the rationalization that these people were something subhuman and undeserving of the basic protections of the Geneva Convention, that thing that injects the littlest bit of self-enforced sanity into the hellscape of modern warfare.  Unconsciously I applied a numerical weight to them versus us, and I made the calculation that something so horrific was fine in this context, because by their heinous actions these insurgents had abdicated their basic right to be treated like the rest of us.

I know better now.  I’ve learned that isn’t how we should ever be.  I have learned that doing the wrong thing, even for the right reasons, is still the wrong thing.  And I’ve expended an inordinate amount of effort and self-reflection to evolve my attitudes to match my moral compass.  But from her words at her Senate confirmation hearing, it’s unclear if Haspel has.  She is viewed by many as a savvy operator, one who comes from the operations side of the Agency and gets the job done in a competent, expedient fashion.  But expedience is damning faint praise when it comes to something so important and nuanced as upholding the dignity of America on the world stage.  And in a job that oversees drone strikes and covert action programs all over the planet, a baseline moral compass should be an absolute prerequisite.  There are simply too many weapons at the disposal of the CIA director – and too much latitude for their use – for a person governed by expediency over morality.

Based on her responses and the lack thereof, it appears that basic morality does not factor into the operational calculus for her, and even though it won’t be a disqualifying factor in her confirmation, it certainly should be.  Because even though 22-year-old-me might very well have done the same exact thing, I didn’t.  Gina Haspel did.  And as a public figure seeking confirmation for a position of such global importance, she should be made to face the consequences of her actions and held to the standards we used to demand of our leaders.  She won’t be, but she should.