The ever-entertaining Tom Friedman has a very useful column up at the Times, explaining why everyone feels “unsatisfied” by the current “compromise” with the principles of law and order, even those who agree with it. It should be read by everyone who wonders what’s going on, and wishes to understand why those who wield power do not wish to see government crimes prosecuted even if it means the punishment of their purported enemies.
After all, we’re not just talking about “enhanced interrogations.” Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 of those declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials.
The president’s decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible for this policy is surely unsatisfying; some of this abuse involved sheer brutality that had nothing to do with clear and present dangers.
In short, we are no longer dealing with torture (bad enough in itself, but a policy for which excuses can, and have, been devised). We are dealing with actual crimes, the kind of crimes that would send you and me and everyone we know to prison, or to death row. So why can’t we have justice? Friedman explains:
justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart
Friedman is exactly right: Punishing mere lackeys would be a mockery of justice. In order to have justice, we have to put the tyrant and his henchmen on trial. Any other result would make a mockery of justice. The entire country knows who was responsible for these crimes, and plucking scapegoats out of the military would be so blatantly dishonest it would arouse the scorn and anger of the entire electorate, left and right, “moderate” and extreme both.
So why not put the ex-president and his compatriots on trial? We didn’t hesitate to put another president on trial, with the whole world watching, for a puny private offense. Nor did Democrats come to their president’s aid; they abused him and denounced him to the press and called for his resignation. No fear of “tearing the country apart” was then heard, even though the president was popular and there was no mob howl for his head. No fear then, either, of consuming the entire attention of the country for a year and more, of diverting attention from all other domestic and foreign affairs, although that was exactly what happened. Why then, but not now?
We are told it would “tear the country apart.” In fact, the great danger is not that it would tear the country apart but that it would bind the country together, arouse the people’s love of justice and righteousness, and unite them behind the great principles of republican government (as opposed to the fake principles of “pragmatism” and “pluralism” that delight the oligarchs). That is what an exposure of some great public evil always does. Four months after Sept. 11, the whole country exploded in outrage and indignation at the misdeeds of the Enron Corporation. Instead of turning the country into a lynch mob, interested in nothing but bloody revenge on the entire Middle East (as Friedman quite falsely claims), the constant focus on the courage and selflessness of bystanders and firefighters had made Americans despise selfishness and injustice far more than they had in years. As ever, the great majority of the American people had proved to be wiser and better-spirited than the powerful few had made them out to be. But let’s return to Friedman and his “explanation”:
and the other is that Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.
Here Friedman reverts at last — and it took him all of four paragraphs! — to the Great Fallback. Yes, he’s just admitted, all of this business had nothing to do with Al Qaeda; nonetheless, Al Qaeda exists, and its existence requires us to do bad things that have nothing to do with fighting Al Qaeda.
Incidentally, notice that Friedman uses the past tense when he needs to portray Al Qaeda as a grave threat that required extreme measures in the past:
Al Qaeda was undeterred by normal means. Al Qaeda’s weapon of choice was suicide. Al Qaeda operatives were ready to kill themselves…
Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda aspired to deliver a devastating blow to America.
Later, when he needs to remind us that such extreme measures may be needed once again, he switches to the present tense:
Al Qaeda is primarily focused on defeating America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world
We have to enjoin those who confront Al Qaeda types every day on the frontlines to act in ways that respect who we are, but also to never forget who they are. They are not white-collar criminals.
The essence of Friedman’s argument is rather brutal: No matter how many crimes a leader might commit, he is still a “white collar criminal” and hence more deserving of our special understanding than a vicious, borderline-inhuman Al Qaeda terrorist. Well, I would sooner spend an evening with Dick Cheney than Ayman al-Zawahiri, but let’s not forget that the vast majority of dictators don’t shoot people themselves, and ordering soldiers into battle doesn’t put you on a higher moral plane than the 20-year-old throwing the grenade.
If you have to fear that the person next to you on a plane or in a theater might blow up, there can be no open society.
Friedman descends here into an irrelevant diatribe about the need to suspend civil liberties in wartime. The point is moot, since nothing he talks about — airport security? — has anything to do with the actual crimes committed by (or on the watch of) the last administration. His actual point seems to be that we should let our leaders do whatever they want whenever there is the slightest peril.
One more 9/11 and you’ll be taking off more than your shoes at the airport. We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”
“This torture debate…” But wait, I thought it wasn’t about torture! Remember: “After all, we’re not just talking about ‘enhanced interrogations.’ ”
We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”
It’s easy to nod at this mentality until something actually happens. Then it looks significantly more troubling. “Do whatever it takes” — really? Should we round up suspicious Americans and put them in internment camps? Should we nationalize the airline industry and triple security measures? Should we revive the Sedition and Espionage Acts? Should we begin invading countries at random, to put terrorism-supporters on notice? Should we suspend habeas corpus? How much is “anything”? When will a threat cease to be a readymade excuse for anything and everything our leaders wish to do to us?
So, yes, people among us who went over the line may go unpunished, because we still have enemies who respect no lines at all.
Since Friedman admits himself that the Bush administration crimes had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, he can’t really explain why they ought to go “unpunished.” So he doesn’t bother explaining, apart from that smooth line about it “tearing us apart.” The rest of the powers that be have a much better-sounding excuse. Their reason is that it would make us look like a “banana republic.”
Senator Kit Bond of Missouri: This whole thing about punishing people in past administrations reminds me more of a banana republic than the United States of America. We don’t criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: “If there is evidence of criminality, then the Attorney General has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.”
Karl Rove: “What they’ve essentially said is if we have policy disagreements with our predecessors…. [W]e’re going to turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses. … Now, that might be fine in some little Latin American country that’s run by, you know, the latest junta — it may be the way that they do things in Chicago — but that’s not the way we do things here in America.”
The problem with this reason is that it looks absurd if you think about it for longer than it took any of these people to say it. Banana republics are countries where rulers are corrupt and self-serving and rewrite the laws at will. If we decide that presidents are, by definition, unable to commit crimes (which both parties openly declared was not true in 2000 when they impeached President Clinton for perjury), and crimes themselves become “policy disagreements,” then every potential crisis becomes grounds for suspending the law and giving the president the power to do whatever he pleases. In short, we become a banana republic. Nor does a terrorist attack, however tragic and unsettling, count as a crisis that threatens the nation’s existence. (Compared to Imperial Japan or the Confederacy, Al Qaeda’s “threat” doesn’t even register.)
In brief: Friedman’s catechism is useful because it collects the various self-serving falsifications and Orwellian double-thoughts into a single place. If some daring Representative is brave enough, s/he ought to read out Friedman’s column on the floor as a devastating expose of the kind of lies a burgeoning banana republic’s ruling elite likes to tell itself.