Conason: “Pardon the Torturers”
This morning I stopped by Digby’s place and found her post on the disturbing account of torture at Guantanamo that Scott Horton has been covering in Harpers:
The medical personnel involvement is sick and after all the stuff about force feeding and using prisoners’ psychological profiles for interrogation purposes, I guess I’m not as surprised as Horton is. But the fact that the white house consciously and knowingly used anal rape to control, interrogate and punish prisoners and went to some length to protect those who were doing it from scrutiny, still has the power to stun me.
Are we really just going to let this stuff go? Really?
No, we can’t, and I can’t imagine anyone on either the left or the right who believes that America stands for something would think we should. And yet that is explicitly what Joe Conason is arguing for this morning when he says "Pardon the Bush Miscreants." He casts the quest for accountability in purely partisan terms when he speaks about Pat Leahy’s pursuit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, saying that "he is certain to encounter ferocious resistance from most Republicans (and they will surely be joined by a faction of conservative Democrats, such as Connecticut’s independent senator, Joseph Lieberman)":
Considering the institutional reluctance in Washington to punish political offenders (especially when they happen to be Republicans), the president’s bipartisan approach to governing, and the very real sense that America faces more urgent issues in the economic emergency, there would seem to be little chance of real action.
These are not "political offenses," these are crimes. And despite the propensity of those who committed them to wrap themselves in the flag and claim they did it for America, there is no way to justify anal rape as an expression of anything other than extreme sadism.
Moreover, we’ve been down the "more urgent issues to attend to" road before, with a stunning lack of success. We were told in 2006 that we had to chuck the part of the Constitution that said we had the obligation to impeach a President who acted with reckless disregard for the law because we had more important things to deal with, like getting out of Iraq. I actually believed that one at the time, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was wrong, and nobody had any intention of mounting a serious attempt to extricate ourselves from Iraq. The carnage continued to be unpopular and it made a heck of a campaign issue in 2008, which is all our political leaders seemed concerned about.
Conason argues that, unlike South Africa, Americans in this new world order just don’t have the stomach to seriously examine the past:
Is there a way for President Obama to pursue that responsibility without inflicting vengeance or humiliation? Perhaps he ought to consider the creation of a presidential commission whose aims would be purely investigative — and encourage the participation of those implicated in the abuses of the past by promising a complete pardon to anyone who testifies fully, honestly and publicly.
With that gesture, he would acknowledge the importance of uncovering the facts, no matter how ugly, while magnanimously binding up the nation’s wounds. He could leave the issue of criminal prosecution to international authorities that can act without any partisan taint. And he could seek truth without vengeance.
Can we stop casting this as vengeance? Can we stop painting people who believe that something terrible was lost during the last eight years, something moral and decent and good at the core of the American soul, as little more than "angry" and "vindictive?" And can we stop assuming that there is something magnanimous about a "bipartisanship" that exists only when both sides agree to walk into the next room and pretend that the pile of wreckage we leave behind, the one that nobody wants to look, isn’t still on fire?
There’s something really disturbing about the assumption that "magnanimously binding up the nation’s wounds" by fobbing off the responsibility for enforcing our laws onto international courts represents some kind of "greater good." Or that people who still believe accountability in government is the very foundation of the rule of law simply haven’t moved on to a higher moral plane, where "truth" can be sought without "vengeance."
The political discourse has become increasingly polarized over the last eight years, but that’s not — as "bipartisan" fetishists found out during the stimulus debate — because all sides are equal and everyone is arguing in good faith, just waiting for a grand unifier to raise them up from their bickering. It’s because the nation was being run like an organized crime syndicate by crooks, and the appropriate response was outrage.
As Glenn Greenwald notes this morning, Conason’s argument rests on a disregard for treaties that the US has bound itself to as well as a distortion of the opinion polling on this matter (something Jim White has been pointing out for days). Contrary to his assertions, demanding accountability isn’t part of some partisan victory lap, it’s the duty of a responsible citizenry. The willingness to pursue justice regardless of the political appetite for it is the only way to keep things from disappearing down the memory hole when a new group sets themselves up in Washington, DC, and shift from outsiders looking in to people protecting their own prerogatives. We have 5% of the world’s population, but we incarcerate 25% of its prison population. How can someone seriously argue that we should exempt our political elites from the laws we so ruthlessly enforce on the poor, expressly because they’ve been so successful in polarizing the political climate as part of their criminal enterprise?
Conason was an important voice in the anti-war movement. But when he cast the issue of accountability for torture in partisan terms, he promptly fell into his own trap. There is something more important than political will as a function of public opinion, as anyone who was part of the small minority arguing against the invasion of Iraq should know. We don’t live in a box, and this isn’t all about making ourselves feel good. We inflicted a lot of pain on the world, and they are looking to see how we deal with it. We owe them, and ourselves, more than a "group hug."