Thursday, July 17, 2008

Truth, Reconciliation, and Torture

What is more important -- find out how torture has become a standard American practice and prevent it from happening in the future or to punish those that perpetrated it? Which of those options will more effectively deter presidents from choosing torture in the future? Which is better for the country? Which more closely follows Christian principles?

In an opinion piece in Newsweek Stuart Taylor says we can't get both. We probably can't get the second. Disclosure time: only that first question is discussed in Taylor's article. The rest are mine.

Pushing for war crimes convictions on any of those involved (including Cheney and Bush) will (1) make them clam up, (2) start a huge legal battle that will last years and will include the Supreme Court with the desired result not guaranteed, (3) ruin the lives of people who were advised what they were doing is legal and necessary to combat terrorists, and (4) perpetuate and compound the partisan divide. In addition, such investigations and trials will probably fail due to the way the War Crimes Act was recently amended (the article does not provide details), even though the Supremes said prosecutions could proceed. The fourth point would be especially important to President Obama (should he get the job) who is running on his ability to end the bickering.

If we give pardons to the various participants (including the next president pardoning Cheney and Bush) we would be able to (1) uncover all important facts, (2) identify innocent victims and compensate them, (3) foster a serious national discussion about how the USA should interrogate those it holds, (4) recommend legal reforms, and (5) make way for appropriate apologies and restore America's good name.

Before I got halfway through this article I knew I needed to discuss it, mostly because it raises personal moral issues on both sides.

I want Bush and Cheney outta there! I want to change the way America works so that it becomes extremely difficult for another president to do what these two have done to rip and trample the Constitution. Impeachment and removal from office seems the best way but we have a bunch of wimpy Democrats in Congress right now. In light of discussion below I note that impeachment and removal carries no additional penalties. But with that route closed, what's left? More laws and procedures? Laws haven't stopped Bush. He's done quite well in getting Congress to declare what he's done to be legal and he's ignored the rest. Even if he's pardoned, will he spill? Nope. He's the most secretive prez. we've had and it's a habit with him. Will stories of what really happened (the what and, more importantly, the why) deter future presidents? How do we say No More! and mean it? Can we?

This attempt to discover truth and not to place blame reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa at the end of the Apartheid era. It chose the route of truth over trials, letting both victims and perpetrators tell their stories and that the perpetrators would get amnesty. The general consensus seems to be that it worked well (though I'm basing that claim on my own memory of the time) and was an integral part of reducing tensions between the races and paving the way for a workable democracy. However, there are criticisms of the commission with many blacks saying reconciliation without justice was impossible. The whole process was weighted in favor of the abusers. The Commission's report showed that atrocities were committed by both sides. Is that knowledge enough to ease relations? Is South Africa free of its racial tensions? I can only report there is very little in American news, which isn't saying much.

I try to follow the teachings of Christianity in spite of many Christians seeing me, a gay man, as a Christian impossibility. Naturally, I don't understand those teachings in the same way that the Fundies do. For example, I don't buy into the idea that Jesus will return and do some righteous butt-kicking -- the good people will vanquish the bad. In my view, the goal isn't to kick butt, but to work for reconciliation.

And here is where Taylor's proposal gets messy. I understand we may not gain a lot by prosecuting the grunts who carried out the torture and tossing them in jail, however that might please our sense of justice, though there is a lot to be said for subordinates disobeying and even resigning over commands they know to be wrong and we should encourage that attitude.

Which brings us back to South Africa commission. Is reconciliation possible without justice? In this case, what is justice? Does justice require throwing perpetrators in jail? Or is it enough for abusers to say the understand what they did is wrong and they won't do it again and perhaps even work to make sure it doesn't happen again? When does justice cross the line to vindictiveness and vengeance? What is suitable justice for Bush and Cheney?

This Newsweek article claims pardons and the accompanying search for truth will foster a national discussion about torture. Will this really happen? I doubt it. There has been a lot of talk of Obama's presidential run fostering a national discussion on race. I've even read a lot of pundits and bloggers calling for such a discussion. But all the actual discussing I've read is either more racial garbage or claims that race problems are so yesterday, we've seen the light and we're post-racial now. I doubt we will be any more adult in our discussions about torture.

So will Stuart Taylor's proposal work? First note that I raised a whole lot more questions than I answered. Second, this is one posting in particular I would appreciate your opinion.

I have my doubts. I agree that it is important to get to the truth and lots of people involved in torture will invoke the Fifth Amendment without a pardon. It is also important to get the cooperation of the underlings to find out how things went wrong at the top. I might even concede that prosecuting those at the bottom of the chain of command won't buy us much and that America's image abroad would be strengthened.

However, Giving Bush a pardon won't get him to talk. Somehow, compensation for victims will get lost in Congressional business, especially since most (all?) of them are not Americans and most are Muslim. The national discussion on torture won't be any more adult that what we get right now on race. And considering what Bush has done to the Constitution and the nation I don't see how new or revised laws will stop some future president from doing the same.

And the one remedy that I see as effective -- impeachment -- has been dismissed.

Update: It was only after I had written this that I read some of the comments left with the Newsweek article (and the one of interest wasn't posted until after the writing was done). One of them says that Stuart Taylor was a crony of Ken Starr and was quite gung-ho about prosecuting Bill Clinton. One of Taylor's articles on Bill is here.

So while I stand by my meandering analysis of the original proposal I see the proposal was highly biased.

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