Monday, January 19, 2009

The Last Night of the Nightmare
So let's get this out of the way up front: as you might have noticed, I haven't been writing as much about politics here lately, and it's my hope that I won't be writing as much about politics, or at least national politics, going forward. (This does look like it'll be a pretty interesting political year here in NYC, and I'm sure I'll want to opine a bit.) And it's almost pointless for me to write anything about the final night of George W. Bush's presidency or Barack Obama's pending inauguration. The former is the worst president of my lifetime, and in my view the worst and most destructive we've ever had; the latter is the first Democrat I've ever supported from the jump who even made it to the general election, let alone won. Not much suspense about what I'd say.

But I'll allow myself one quick point. Annie and I were making tomato sauce tonight and watching the Keith Olbermann show, which I've done maybe an average of once every two months the last few years: I mostly just wanted to see him do the happy dance for an hour. And, as Olbermann generally does, he went so far overboard that I found myself turned off from views I basically share--just not to that extreme. (See here, number 37. Read the whole thing, actually--it's the tits.) Olbermann closed his show with a "Special Comment" about the need to prosecute Bush administration officials who engaged in torture, and the various reasons why Obama should not be deterred by either the inevitable accusations of partisanship or the illusion of a clean slate.

That said, I disagree with his conclusion that prosecutions must go forward. 

The question of what to do about the torture policy, or any other of the seemingly endless parade of Bush scandals, is really the same question that inevitably arises through the life of a nation: how to deal with any unsavory act in our past. At the end of his monologue, Olbermann ran through a litany of old American sins and how the failure to address them led to more pain and unhappiness later on. (We'll pass over his embarrassing mischaracterization of World Wars I and II.) The thing is that you don't close the book and move on by punishing the sinners; that directly contravenes the notion that torture is our collective abomination, and one could even assert with cause that we're scapegoating Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al as "bad apples" just as they did the pitiable grunts Lynddie England and Charles Graner

But this is also not to say that we should attempt for collective amnesia about what we did in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and however many other sites where Americans committed war crimes against the guilty and innocent alike. What I would wish for is a simple accounting: a clear and uninflected reading into the record of just what was done and just who did it. In exchange for this, I would indemnify everybody: no prosecutions, no sentences... other than for perjury, perhaps. 

Obama's election does not solve the problems of the country. But it does remind us that we retain some capacity for democratic self-correction--both in the immediate truth that the electorate chose the candidate furthest, in almost every way one can imagine, from the malign incompetence of the Bush years, and in the historical fact that forty years and change after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a solid majority of the voters chose an African-American liberal to lead us. The real goal here is to move on, to ensure that we never again commit this crime as a matter of policy. My faith is that a true and complete record of what was done will accomplish this in a more effective way than the drama of crime and punishment that more committed partisans might imagine. Let us commit it to our national memory, and then commit ourselves to a higher standard. 


Katrina said...

Please see my blog. Lynndie England et all were scapegoats. After our meeting with Janis Karpinski, we know it even more. It is time for these jokers to face the music. They have destroyed many lives due to their policies, decisions, and lies...

The Navigator said...

I'm not sure where I stand on the necessity of prosecutions. A good argument has been laid out at and that we have no choice, that criminal prosecution of torture is compelled by treaties to which the U.S. is a party. I don't know whether or not that's entirely accurate, but if it is, I think that ends the question: part of getting back to the rule is respecting our treaty obligations (and, if we can't/shouldn't meet them, withdrawing from the treaties rather than acting as though they neither exist nor matter).

Setting that legalism aside, I'm not convinced that prosecution is "necessary" for us to 'move on' or to ensure it doesn't happen again. I do think there must be some accounting, though. As with the failure to impeach over illegal wiretapping: that was a precedent, and will influence future behavior. Likewise with torture: a truth commission is the minimum required. I'd add to Dave's suggestion a provision for Congressional censure - we can't just acknowledge what happened, we need to affirm that it was wrong and unnecessary and made us less safe.

The Navigator said...

Conservatives like Eric Posner at have argued that the Dems can't/won't go after the torturers-in-chief because the defense would just call the Dem committee chairs, ranking members etc. who were fully aware of what was happening and offered implicit or even explicit endorsement.

That may correctly lay out the politics, but on the merits, to the extent Democrats enabled this, I hope they come in for the scorn they deserve as well.

David said...

Needless to say, I completely agree with the last point... but, sadly, it's so far out of character for the Senate Democrats in particular to proceed thusly that I can't imagine they'd break form and do the right thing. Unless--and this is really way-out speculation--maybe Obama for whatever reason decided to use it as a nuclear option in retaliation for their screwing with his agenda, if they do so.