Friday, April 24, 2009

No one should be above the law

President Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon to avoid divisions in American society that he saw as a threat. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he declared. There would be no more investigations. There would be no more prosecutions.

Yet the message he didn’t declare but came across loud and clear was that some of America’s top leaders are not accountable to the rules. The precedent set was that certain people are clearly above the law.

With the release of the torture memos there have been calls in some quarters to investigate no more and to not prosecute. The list of rationales to do nothing is long and sometimes contradictory (it wasn’t torture/it was torture but justified; it was legal/it may not have technically been legal but everyone else does it; despite what professional interrogators say nothing else works; we were defending our freedom/it is unpatriotic to questions the actions and decisions of our leaders; we were defending our open society/these documents should not be public; etc.). However, the bottom line is we are a democracy and the American public has a right to know what has been done and what is being done in our name. If nothing wrong was done then those involved in the decisions to engage in “harsh interrogations” should have nothing to fear. If they were so clearly right then they should come off as heroes.

But if crimes were committed then prosecutions should follow. We are a nation of laws and the precedent set by this episode in our history should not be that certain people are above the law.

Paul Krugman on reclaiming America’s soul:
…there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?
Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

… what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

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