“Let’s not argue and bicker about who tortured who…”
-Monty Python and the Holy Grail, paraphrased
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.
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?
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.”
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?”
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.