I'm pleased—if that's the right word—and more than a little surprised to see that Obama has released four of the Bush administration's torture memos. As far as the content of the memos goes, I don't know that I have much more to say than I said here.
I'm less pleased by Obama's stated rationale for not pursuing prosecutions:
[A]t a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past....I understand that Obama is in the middle of a personally and professionally dangerous balancing act. I understand that political language is not generally intended to inform people of the facts, let alone the truth. I've never expected Obama to rise very far above what is ultimately a cruel and brutal office, whether he wanted to or not. And I realize that the extent to which we're not being lied to about torture may possibly be more significant, in the long run, than Obama's typical palaver about the spiritual necessity of getting over what we've done to other people and other countries.
That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
And yet. Is it really necessary for Obama to keep rejecting the concept of accountability? Is it really necessary to keep demoralizing people who believe that we have no right to move forward, and who don't see embracing the ethics of the hit-and-run driver as a path to national greatness? He's obliged to spout platitudes, granted...but does he have to spout platitudes that specifically undermine the rule of law, and the entire notion of justice as a means of reconciliation and redemption?
It seems obvious to me that if we'd laid the blame properly for the most lurid political crimes of the seventies and eighties — if we'd understood that "moving forward" required us to recognize the architects of these crimes as people who could never again be allowed to hold office — the Bush administration would've been a logical and legal impossibility.
Ideally, we would've done this in order to make amends to our victims, and to take a tentative step towards becoming the people we claim to be. Failing that, we could at least have barred proven war criminals and sadistic crackpots from the White House, simply as a matter of self-preservation. But instead, we moved on from the crimes of Rumsfeld and Negroponte and Abrams and the rest so highmindedly that they were at perfect liberty to take up right where they'd left off, less than a decade earlier. And since that turned out so well for everyone, why not do it again?
Every time we're caught brutalizing and mutilating and murdering people in ways that haven't gotten the seal of approval from Civilized Nations, it turns out that justice is a luxury we can't afford, because it might sidetrack us from our appointed path to glory. I can think of plenty of reasons for not pursuing prosecutions; I may not approve of them, but I understand them. I can even imagine strategic tradeoffs that could be beneficial in the long run. But I can see very few reasons for pretending that there's some moral or practical virtue in fleeing yet again from the scene of the crime, in order to console ourselves yet again with thoughts of our essential "greatness." And none of them reassures me at all.
Nor am I thrilled with this fretting over "disunity." I don't want to be unified with torturers or the people who defend them. It's like being forced into a shotgun marriage with a man who just raped you and burned down your house. The monstrous ideological imposition of "unity" is what made crimes like these possible, and now it's supposed to justify putting them beyond the reach of the law...presumably so that we can once again present a monolithic front against this dangerous world full of evildoers who hate our freedom. And if "our" unwillingness to uphold the law leads to some new atrocity, and we're "fortunate" enough to find out about it, Obama or someone else will undoubtedly urge us once more to "resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future."
As always, like cures like. Just as terror is the antidote to terrorism, and free-market failures call out for free-market solutions, an extra dose of stupid, sentimental nationalism will solve the problems that arise when The Greatest Country On Earth gets a little too zealous in its pursuit of manifest destiny. What could possibly go wrong?
(Illustration: "The Water Torture: Facsimile of a woodcut in Damhoudere's
Praxis Rerum Criminalium," 1556.)