What Does Letting Our Own War Criminals Go Free Tell Us About Ourselves?

Among President Obama's advisers (and, seemingly, in the man himself), there is a division as to what, if anything, should be done to the chief rapists of the Constitution since 9/11. On one hand, with so much for the new president to do, he'll need public support, so why distract the citizenry with old news? Also, for many of us, there's much more concern about keeping our jobs (or scrambling to find new ones) than finding out who ordered waterboarding or gave the CIA blanket permission to hide away suspects in secret "black-site" prisons.

The answer to this quandary—and I think Barack Obama is capable of understanding this—is provided by Scott Horton, former president of the International League for Human Rights, and a Tom Paine of our time, in a story in Harper's December issue, called "Justice After Bush": "If the people wish to retain sovereignty, they must also reclaim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they have not. . . . Pursuing the Bush administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture (among other crimes), it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government" (emphasis added).

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