“Buck Up, Little Camper”

Last week when the government finally released the torture memos, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed this:

Mr. Obama condemned what he called a “dark and painful chapter in our history” and said that the interrogation techniques would never be used again. But he also repeated his opposition to a lengthy inquiry into the program, saying that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Obama’s stance is the standard cowardice of politics. Holding criminals accountable for their behavior is an ongoing campaign tactic, applied only to those who are not one’s peers. But it is nonsense if we are to avoid a repeat of this in the future.

Mr. Coates stated why:

I think this is wrong. More than that I think it’s dismissive, silly and bordering on insult to any literate human being. In point of fact “spending our time and energy laying blame for the past” is exactly what the justice system does. By Obama’s logic murderers would go free in the streets. The real question is not whether you’re going to lay blame for the past, but who your [sic] going to lay it on, and for which past. What Obama is really saying in this statement is he won’t hold this particular group accountable, for this particular past.

This is a dangerous course because it doesn’t simply not “lay blame for the past,” it shrugs off arguably the solemn responsibility of safeguarding the future. The price of doing nothing, of not enforcing laws, is the implicit statement that it really is OK to torture, that the most you’ll face is a wag of the finger. The concern isn’t mere vengeance.

This is exactly right. It is obvious that the United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration. Yes it will be uncomfortable to prosecute high-ranking officials, including a former president. But justice is important if we are to walk back from the insanity of the Bush years. The difficulty in effort and emotion is not a sufficient reason to avoid the necessary task.

Mr. Coates contemplates this difficulty:

All of that said, what really disturbs me about all of this, is that most Americans still don’t think torture is a big deal. I think in the case of Bush, particularly after 2004, we–the American people–got the government we deserved. I think Bush said a lot about who we were post-9/11. I’d like to see some exploration into how to make this torture argument directly to the people. Maybe we can’t. Maybe people really don’t care that much. But if we’re wondering why Obama isn’t willing to press forward, I think it’s fair to also wonder why the people aren’t pressing him to press forward.

I’m not wondering why Obama isn’t willing to press forward. However, the readiness of so many to look away or actively encourage this behavior is disgusting. I suspect I won’t like the answer if we press forward with prosecution. But I’d rather know that people think this than pretend they don’t.


The title of this post is a reference from here about this:

“Don’t be discouraged by what’s happened in the last few weeks,” he told [CIA] employees. “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes. That’s how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States and that’s why you should be proud to be members of the C.I.A.”

This way is not moving forward. It is moving sideways until the next time this happens.