Sunday, April 26, 2009

The law: It's not for 'people like us'

David Broder has lost his mind.

At least I hope so -- that would be the charitable explanation for his Washington Post column urging President Obama to let sleeping torturers lie. But I don't think that's the case.

NO, I THINK there's another explanation for rhetoric like this:

Obama, to his credit, has ended one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States.

He was right to do this. But he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government. And he was right when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats who devised and justified the Bush administration practices.

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more -- the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps -- or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Obama has opposed even the blandest form of investigation, a so-called truth commission, and has shown himself willing to confront this kind of populist anger. When the grass roots were stirred by the desire for vengeance against the AIG officers who received contractual bonuses from government bailout funds, Obama bought time by questioning the tactic. Quickly the patently unconstitutional 90 percent tax the House wanted to slap on those bonuses was forgotten.
LOOKING FOR SCALPS? Wait a minute. Just wait a minute. U.S. and international law prohibits torture of captured combatants, with penalties ranging up to death if the torture is fatal. Furthermore, the United States has led prosecution of torturers from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the wake of World War II, sending those individuals to prison for years. Or worse.

I think this example is interesting. An American military commission, in 1947, tried four Japanese defendants for war crimes committed against U.S. prisoners. Among the war crimes? Waterboarding.

Of course, Japanese war criminals had nothing on your average Texas sheriff.

In 1983, the San Jacinto County sheriff and three deputies were charged with -- and convicted of -- waterboarding prisoners to elicit confessions. The "lawmen" all went to prison for a long, long time.

As the judge said in federal court as he passed sentence: ''The operation down there would embarrass the dictator of a country.''

But not, as it turns out, a certain president of the United States hailing from the Lone Star state.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I gather what American interrogators did to "enemy combatants" in the name of the American people does embarrass David Broder. Just not enough to prosecute Bush Administration figures for acting just like Hitler's and Tojo's henchmen . . . or sadistic Texas lawmen.

No, according to Broder, war crimes just aren't that big a deal when it's Americans committing them. Or ordering them. I'll bet the venerable pundit also wonders why the world hates us.

Probably, in the fever swamp of his Beltway consciousness, Broder believes the world -- like the left-wing Washington ideologues and the provincial populist yahoos -- just harbors an "unworthy desire for vengeance." Vengeance identical to that we took against the Nazis and Japanese for their World War II atrocities, no doubt.

What were we thinking back then?

Couldn't Harry Truman see he was engaging "in a retroactive search for scapegoats"?

It's all so clear. At least to Broder:

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice.
IF ONLY President Truman had had the wisdom and foresight of David Broder, ace columnist of The Washington Post, we might have spared ourselves six decades of poisoned relations with Germany and Japan. Who knows? Perhaps we even could have turned those fierce enemies into close allies.

Oh, wait. . . .

Nevertheless, the point remains for the oracle Broder: Justice is never its own reward. Justice may or may not be useful depending upon what one's ulterior motives happen to be.

Like Pontius Pilate -- his philosophical brother two millennia removed who famously asked "What is truth?" -- Broder stands before verifiable, objective truth and muses "What is justice?"

Obviously, he figures justice must be radically different today for civilized people -- D.C. insiders with whom he's shared drinks and bon mots -- than it was for uncouth Nazis and wild-eyed Japanese fanatics of the 1940s.

Or for some Buford Pusser gone wrong in Bumf*** Tejas.

AND THE REST of us who figure the law is the law is the law . . . and that no man stands above it? In the world of David Broder and his Washington cronies, we're just so many grass-roots vigilantes, full of "populist anger" and hell-bent on vengeance.

No, in BroderWorld, the elites stick together against the rabble -- those crazy folk talking crazy talk. Really, what nut came up with foolishness like "government of the people, by the people, for the people" anyway?

Obviously, some rube who didn't know who his betters were.

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