“Let’s not argue and bicker about who tortured who…”
-Monty Python and the Holy Grail, paraphrased
You’ve probably heard that President Obama has decided not to proceed with prosecutions of CIA officials in the Bush administration who were responsible for torture. On the principle that “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.” On the principle that, “at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
This is the first time in the Obama administration that the President has made me deeply, blazingly angry. (Yes — way, way angrier than the Rick Warren debacle. That was essentially a symbolic act, and while I loathed its symbolism, I was willing to let it slide if Obama made it up with practical action.)
This is much worse. This is deeply serious. I need to say something about it.
* * *
I understand Obama’s desire to move forward; to look to the future and not the past; to unite the country and not divide it against itself.
But sometimes, in order to move forward, people need to know that justice has been done. In order to let go of the past, people need to know that the evils and injustices of that past have been addressed.
I understand that Obama is a practical man. Fine. From a purely practical standpoint: Why should other countries trust this administration to keep treaties and abide by international law, if it’s going to let something as egregious and purely evil as torture just slide? For that matter, why should the citizens of this country trust this administration to administer justice fairly, when we see that government officials can and do get away with crimes of this enormity?
And perhaps even more importantly: Why should current and future military/ intelligence people not torture, not give the order to torture, not come up with grotesquely laughable legal justifications for torture… if they know that if they do and if they get caught, nothing will happen? From a purely pragmatic standpoint, that is the whole freaking idea of accountability, the whole freaking idea of justice — to show people that if they do something terrible, there will be consequences. So they, you know, are less likely to do it. How much more pragmatic can you get?
And from a moral standpoint?
From a moral standpoint, this is completely indefensible. From a moral standpoint, this makes me want to throw up. From a moral standpoint, the idea that you should be able to do the vile, gruesome, flat-out evil things to other human beings that these people did — do I really need to spell them out again? — and then walk away scot-free, with no consequences but the torments of your own conscience… that is intolerable.
Nobody else gets a free pass from the concept of justice and the hand of the law, on the principle that we should just move forward and not spend our time and energy on retribution. If I get caught robbing a liquor store, no prosecutor is going to let me walk on the principle that we need to not get caught up in a divisive blame game and should instead just look to the future.
And when representatives of the democratically elected government of the most powerful country in the world commit one of the most vile, despicable, nauseating crimes imaginable — and do it in a conscious, orchestrated way — that’s a whole lot more frakking serious than me holding up a liquor store. The fact that these crimes were politically motivated and done on behalf of the government doesn’t make it less important that we prosecute. It makes it more important. Much, much, much more important.
There’s another word for what Obama is so dismissively calling “retribution” or “laying blame.” That word is “justice.”
And seeing justice done is not living in the past. It is moving forward. Emotionally, pragmatically, psychologically, morally — on every human level from the basest to the finest, seeing justice done is an absolutely essential component of being able to let go of past harms and move on.
We’re not talking about a quibble over whose turn it was to do the dishes, or a family quarrel over hosting Christmas dinner that’s still raging twenty years later. We’re talking about war crimes, some of the worst kind of war crimes imaginable — and we’re talking about war crimes that happened as recently as last year, and that went on for years. I do not want my country’s official position on that — the thing we are saying to the world and to ourselves about that — to be, “That was months ago. Why do you keep bringing up old stuff?”
I’m still not sorry I voted for Obama. I still ascribe to the harm reduction model of politics, and as angry as I am at Obama right now, I still think he’s a thousand times better than McCain would have been as President. (And it’s not like I think McCain would have been a mighty sword of justice against torturers in the Bush administration.)
But this is a big frakking deal. This isn’t just your basic “Well, I knew he was going to do some things that would tick me off, and he is the entire country’s President and not just mine, and he can’t make everybody happy” disagreement. This is a fundamental disagreement over a fundamental issue of political morality. And I hereby say that I do not accept it. I mostly like Obama, and have mostly been willing to cut him a fair amount of slack. But I hereby say that, on this issue, President Obama does not speak for me, and I reject his ideas with every fiber of my being.
I’ve written a fair amount about why I believe in the basic idea of government. As recently as two days ago, in fact. And one of the central themes in these writings has been that, in a democratic government, it is not only the right but the responsibility of citizens to speak out when their elected representatives represent us badly. When elected representatives make indefensible decisions that are likely to have appalling consequences, it is the right and the responsibility of citizens to say No.
So this is me, saying: No.
Obama is wrong. We need to bring torturers and war criminals to justice. And we need to start doing it now.