These "leaders" continue to advance the bizarre and bogus argument that the nation has too many "urgent priorities" to bother with following its own laws. Obama told the Democratic poobahs from Congress that a "full inquiry" into the torture system would "steal time and energy from his policy agenda," the Times reports. But this argument -- indeed the entire issue of some sort of "commission" to investigate the high crimes -- is simply a cynical bait and switch.
It is really very simple. Ample, credible evidence of violations of federal law have been produced by a plethora of reputable sources -- including the United States Senate and even the Pentagon. It is the function of the Justice Department to investigate possible violations of federal law, and, if warranted, prosecute them. Barack Obama would not -- could not -- carry out such a criminal investigation or direct the prosecution. The United States Congress would not carry out such a criminal investigation or direct the prosecution. Not a single government official now involved in dealing with the wars, with foreign policy, with the economy and the bailout, with health care, with employment and housing, with the environment, with the budget, with immigration -- in short, with any single activity of governing whatsoever -- would have their "time and energy" taken up by a straightforward criminal investigation undertaken by the Justice Department. [I see that Paul Krugman is making this same point in the New York Times. So now, even "serious" people can't pretend not to have heard it.]
If anyone -- politician, pundit, pal at the water cooler -- gives you the argument that torture can't be investigated because it would be a "distraction" from other government business, they are either lying to your face, or else ignorantly repeating a lie that's been filtered down from the elite. The argument about "distraction" is ludicrous, and insulting, on its face. It is exactly like saying, "Oh, we can't investigate these murders by Al Capone and his mob, because the mayor and city council have a lot on their plates right now, with this Depression and all. This is a time for looking forward, not retribution."
We don't need a "truth commission." We don't need to "wait for the facts to be gathered," as that walking conglomeration of craven servility and moral corruption, Harry Reid, insists. There are enough clearly established, copiously documented, credibly supported facts already in the public domain to warrant a full-scale criminal investigation by federal law enforcement officials.
It has nothing to do with "retribution" or "criminalizing policy disagreements" or "witch hunts" or any other of the weasel-word phrases being disgorged by our Establishment grandees in their panicky attempt to bury the crimes -- and in some cases, the dead bodies -- of the nation's bipartisan leadership.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. There will be no genuine accounting (or, apparently, not even any ersatz accounting, with a couple of scapegoat scalps paraded before the rubes) on the question of torture by the United States government for two simple reasons. First, the Democratic leaders of Congress are themselves thoroughly complicit in the torture system, about which they were often briefed by the Bush Administration itself. And if the Bush Administration withheld information about many of its atrocities in these official briefings (which is highly likely), detailed revelations of what was really going on has been readily available for years from a number of, again, credible and respectable sources, from human rights organizations to U.S. government agencies.
Any full and genuine investigation of the torture system would reveal the shocking extent of Democratic complicity with it. And certainly a criminal investigation -- which could not be steered and hobbled by a "blue-ribbon" panel of Establishment grandees -- would be even more dangerous in that regard. A genuine, independent probe of the Bush torture system would also doubtless lead back to covert tortures countenanced by Democratic and Republican administrations going back for several decades, as Bernard Chazelle noted recently.
The second reason why Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership are resisting, with all their might, a full investigation for the torture system is that they want to uphold what is perhaps the central principle of the American state today: the unaccountability of the ruling elite. [Glenn Greenwald speaks to this point here.] They want to retain the freedom of action to do "whatever it takes" (that tough-guy phrase so beloved by "savvy" insiders and their sycophants in the press) to maintain themselves and their cronies and their class in a position of dominance, wealth and privilege. The law is not for them; the law is for the rubes, the suckers, the rabble, the losers -- for you and me, in other words.
I don't want to make a fetish of the law. Laws are generally devised by the powerful to serve and protect their own interests. As we noted here yesterday, most of the atrocities committed by the Germans in World War II were "legal" under the laws of the Nazi regime. The ringing phrase, "rule of law," is not a magic talisman that solves all ills.
But as Billy Kid said to Alamosa Bill, in Sam Peckinpah's eccentric western about the ever-shifting legal and moral lines in human affairs: "The law's a funny thing, ain't it?" Once it has been fashioned, it can be used in ways its elitist framers might never have intended: against them, for example. For whatever reasons, the United States government has adopted the UN Convention against Torture as the law of the land. All of the leaders of the United States government claim to be sworn upholders of the law; indeed, they certainly apply rigorously, even ruthlessly, to those of us in the lower orders.
So now we come to what is called, in the treacly, touchy-feely parlance of our day, a "teachable moment." Here is one of the most clear-cut points of national decision and self-definition that can be imagined. Clear, credible evidence of atrocity and conspiracy has been produced. The course prescribed by law is clear: criminal investigation and, if warranted, prosecution. If, as you claim, your state is founded upon the rule of law, then there simply is no choice in the matter: the torture program and all of its perpetrators, facilitators and instigators must be subjected to the due process of law, without fear or favor.
If this does not happen, then your state, however modernized and sophisticated, is nothing but a gilded barbarism, a gangland, where the brute force of money, privilege and power hold tyrannical sway. There is no law, only the triumph of the will of corrupt and criminal factions as they preen and jostle for position atop a fetid heap of blood and filth.
President Barack Obama and the Democratic leaders have now openly joined the long-time Republican resistance to applying the law of the land to the torture program. What lesson, then, are we to take from this "teachable moment"? What does this decision, this act of self-definition, say about the true nature of the American system of government today? Where does it put our righteous, noble, God-professing leaders?
Why, on top of that stinking heap, of course!
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This story was published on April 27, 2009.