What Ebenezer Scrooge teaches America about atonement for the CIA’s sins.

Ebenezer Scrooge film still

Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol. Does he realize his need to atone?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite stories, is playing on every TV channel and in every community theatre across the country. This week, the country learned about terrible sins committed in the name of national security. In my own twisted way, I noticed a connection between the fiction and the reality. Ebenezer Scrooge experienced a transformative moment derived from his accumulated sins. Is our country going through a similar moment, and like Scrooge, will it atone for its behavior?

Although CIA Director John Brennan has offered a litany of excuses out of loyalty to his agency, no one has denied that the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation techniques” to terrorism suspects (though former Vice President Dick Cheney says it wasn’t torture). It’s as close to an admission of torturing people as you’ll hear from an American intelligence agency. Even if you believe the CIA had to go to extremes to defend the United States, the agency still broke national and international law and acted contrary to civilized values. Another value, atonement, comes into play.

Cue Ebenezer Scrooge.

In Dickens’ 1843 novella, Scrooge is an elderly miser alienated from society who mistreats his one employee, Bob Cratchit, refuses to help the poor at Christmas, and looks down his long, thin nose at his relations as frivolous and wasteful. On Christmas Eve, he’s visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, who sends him three spirits, the last of which shows him his fate if he does not atone for his sins, mostly of omission, against his family and his community.

The potential for oblivion wakes Scrooge to his decades of poor behavior, and he resolves to atone for it by opening up his heart and his wallet to Cratchit, his nephew, and humanity at large. His pledges and gifts heal his relationship to society, prompting Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, to call on Heaven: “God bless us, every one.”

What’s the connection between Scrooge and the CIA? The Senate report reveals how the government alienated itself from the nation’s values by torturing terrorism suspects. Debate now rages on what the country should do next, if anything. Should leaders from former President Bush on down be called before a tribunal? Scrooge admitted his sins, but instead of facing a judge, he tried on his own to set things right. He atoned for his errors and asked forgiveness.

The United States has admitted errors in the past and atoned. In 1988, President Reagan signed an act apologizing to Japanese-American citizens for interning them during World War II. The law provided for reparations of $1.6 billion. In 1993, President Clinton signed a joint resolution by Congress acknowledging “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States.” The acknowledgement itself is a form of national atonement. At least one member of Congress, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), has suggested apologizing to terrorism suspects tortured by the CIA.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s atonement reintegrates him into the community. He transforms from a lonely miser to a welcome participant in society. Our country made huge errors in the frightening days after 9/11. We can admit our mistakes, pledge to do better, and take actions that demonstrate our good faith. Let Scrooge lead the way.

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