We have heard this before. I was struck when I heard it said by a former Israeli Prime Minister many years ago prior to the actual process that led to the Camp David Accord. It sounded right.Yesterday, President Obama released memos from the Bush Administration justifying the use of interrogation methods which can only be described as torture. And even though I believe Obama was right to say there would be no prosecutions, his decision not to press ahead with criminal charges against CIA officers who used these memos to justify their behaviour has left many in his liberal base upset and bewildered. In other words, interrogators appear to have been told they can do wrong and everything will be forgotten.
The ACLU was first off the mark to sound the clarion of protest. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy was clearly disappointed with Obama’s approach because any future prosecution will likely be more difficult as a result. Obama media backers were also highly critical of the move and speculated loudly that such a chilling and despicable episode in US history could be repeated unless offenders were prosecuted. Judicial initiatives in other countries against torture during the Bush years could very well be compromised as a result of Obama’s reluctance to prosecute.
However, Obama wishes to be transparent and, in this regard, he has passed the test. And just like President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon to end “our long national nightmare,” Obama wishes to move on from the Bush years. It is very much in his temperament to avoid division and polariarization. The question is, how wise is this approach? If America is indeed truly ashamed of this dark chapter in its history, should it be doing more to prevent a repeat performance? America has had other tragic episodes in the past: racist lynchings, the witchhunts, and McCarthyism as a whole. Watergate and political corruption have also had their day and, despite corrective actions, each of these mistakes have been repeated in various forms.
The Bush torture memos, however, are unique in their tone and manner. The events of 9/11 went a long way to create the hysteria that led to the memos and the media did little to shift the balance. Journalists embedded themselves with the troops in Iraq and Gitmo was never a secret. Where were the liberal voices, then? Of course, it is hard to dispute the claim that punishment is necessary. But a president must do more than seek retribution. After all, this is what brought about those chilling memos in the first place.
A president must exercise wisdom. And that is where Obama may be making his point. The Constitution and American democracy must also do its job. The Nuremberg trials brought some form of justice, but they did not prevent other genocides. Perhaps Obama is telling Americans the entire country is partly responsible for the mistakes of the Bush years. They knew about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, yet they re-elected the man responsible for them. They knew about Cheney and Haliburton, yet they put Cheney back in power in 2004. Having Bush in office for eight years was punishment enough for Americans. Finally, Obama is telling voters that if they do not want a repeat performance, they should just elect people who will respect the Constitution. That’s the best way to never forget.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.