Three of the saddest days in my life occurred in 1996 when I stood at the edge of a mass grave being excavated in Guatemala. It was a product of right-wing death squads who roamed at will in a country whose most murderous leaders were praised in Washington. After the 1954 CIA coup, the military there was trained in the United States and by visiting Green Beret advisers. Vigorous support by the ruling oligarchs for U.S. corporate interests marked one of the darkest episodes since the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary gave Washington "legal" support for meddling in the affairs of this hemisphere's sovereign nations.
Watching as the decomposed bodies of more than 100 men, women and children - many of them burned and a few with their thumbs still tied behind their backs - were uncovered and photographed and brought out of the ground as respectfully as possible, I wondered how many of my fellow Americans were aware that U.S. policy had helped put these people into the ground. Certainly the story didn't get a lot of play in the U.S. media at the time, and when it did, almost always unmentioned was how the CIA had overthrown the elected government 40 years before and how the Reagan administration had praised a mass murderer and gotten around a ban on military assistance to the Guatemalan government by renaming some such aid "civilian."
The killings that put those people and thousands of other Guatemalans into mass graves occurred at a time when the CIA was writing torture manuals for use by Central American military forces, some of whom doubled as death squads.
Today was for me another viciously sad day. To be sure, it couldn't match the raw horror of seeing massacred people removed from a grave that may have included the bodies of some whom my tax money helped pay to torture.
But I nonetheless suffered from a powerful echo. Just as nobody then was brought to account for actions that violated both international law and basic human decency, it became finally apparent today - after months of hints - that nobody is going to be brought to account for carrying out torture or ordering it to be carried out against suspects captured in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
According to the BBC, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, says the United States must, under the U.N. Convention against Torture, prosecute those who engage in it:
"The United States, like all other states that are part of the UN convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court," Mr Nowak told the Austrian daily Der Standard.
That apparently makes no difference to the Obama administration, which, in spite of all the welcome talk about the rule of law, has come to the astonishing conclusion that holding people accountable for criminal behavior or ordering others to commit criminal behavior is not about justice but rather retribution. It should be instructive to see how such a perspective plays out when it comes to this document. Surely, using the same logic, we can empty the federal prison system and deeply slash the federal court budget.
It's still unclear exactly how much the offices of the previous President and Vice President participated in the drafting of the four recently released memos on torture and the nine previously released memos that were crafted as guidelines on how the executive branch could evade the law. The level of their participation would certainly have been useful information to obtain. It would have been helpful to a potential prosecutor to know whether those who ultimately ordered torture against suspected terrorists were also engaged in devising definitions stating that the torture they would be ordering wasn't actually torture. If they were, and there is every good reason to believe so, it's not unlike having John Gotti walk free after helping to draft guidelines for laws on racketeering.
We have been led to believe by many who have engaged this debate over the past three months that President Obama was playing 3D chess while the rest of us played checkers. There was a process going on, we were told, and it would take time, but eventually, after the economic mess and the health care crisis and other matters of importance were dealt with, those who ordered torture would be brought to account. We should, we were told, chill out because Obama has "frakkin' got this."
Now we know that justice for those who ordered torture will consist of sipping chilled piña coladas, commanding stratospheric lecture fees and drawing big advances for their memoirs.
Pragmatism vs. ideology, we are told, is the art of getting the good achieved instead of holding out for the perfect, which never comes to fruition. This means doing, in effect, "what works." That's the benign version, and even idealists - or, let us say, idealistic pragmatists like me - can go along with policies that provide half a loaf when the alternative is no bread at all. But there is another kind of pragmatism, the kind that seems to have led to this no-prosecutions decision, and it is anything but benign and beneficial.
Chris Hayes spoke to it last December at The Nation when he wrote:
Indeed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, "pragmatists" of all stripes--Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner--lined up to offer tips and strategies on how best to implement a practical and effective torture regime; but ideologues said no torture, no exceptions. Same goes for the Iraq War, which many "pragmatic" lawmakers--Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter--voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. Of course, by any reckoning, the war didn't work. That is, it failed to be a practical, nonideological improvement to the nation's security. This, despite the fact that so many willed themselves to believe that the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Principle is often pragmatism's guardian. Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it's a vice in vicious ones.
There's another problem with the fetishization of the pragmatic, which is the brute fact that, at some level, ideology is inescapable. ... Alan Greenspan, of all people, made this point deftly while testifying before Henry Waxman's House Oversight Committee. Waxman asked Greenspan, "Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?" To which Greenspan responded, "Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to--to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not."
It is possible to achieve what President Obama wants and what the vast majority of our nation wants - to move forward in dealing with the crises in the economy, health care, energy and the environment - and simultaneously deal appropriately with those leaders who culminated decades of secret, U.S.-backed torture with torture-enabling legal arguments so transparently ludicrous as to embarrass the inventors of sophistry. After all, as Barack Obama once rightly told candidate John McCain, the Presidency by its very nature requires multitasking.
Alas, prosecution now has been taken off the table.
So what's left? We're unlikely to get a full-bore investigation like those conducted of the intelligence establishment by Otis Pike and Frank Church in the mid-'70s. Even the lowest rung on the accountability ladder hasn't made any headway. The last time Senator Patrick Leahy mentioned the much-criticized "truth commission" was April 3. He is still seeking support for the idea, he said.
As Scott Horton wrote when the previous secret memos were released in March:
"We may not have realized it at the time, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship. The constitutional rights we learned about in high school civics were suspended. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution. What we know now is likely the least of it."
Obama is, obviously, far from a dictator. Including the denunciation of torture and the release of all those secret memos, he has taken numerous actions deserving of loud huzzahs. But he and his team have just tossed aside one key means of ensuring that no future President builds on the precedent set during those eight dark years. Sooner or later, in the next Presidency or a generation from now, that decision will come back to plague us.