It's probably a good idea to preface what I'm about to say with a quick fact: I was in New York City two days after September 11th, 2001; I covered the aftermath of the attack that leveled the World Trade Center both from ground zero and from the 69th Regiment Armory at 25th and Lexington, which was where many of the families of those missing and presumed dead were sent to have their cases processed. I held in my arms men and women who'd just lost loved ones and who were, at that moment, devastated remnants of the people they had been just a few days earlier. Because of all this, I felt an electrified rush of jingoistic venom like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I wanted to see those responsible for the catastrophic anguish around me not simply brought to justice, but made to suffer in the most excruciating way possible. The people who brought down the World Trade Center -- and part of the Pentagon, and a commercial jet full of innocents in Pennsylvania -- deserved to die, and die horribly. They still do.
I need to make all of these experiences and these feelings clear, because maybe if I do it will help to lend a certain kind of weight to what I think now has to be said.
George W. Bush and members of his administration should be investigated and stand trial for their crimes -- for their trampling of the Constitution, their illegal and unnecessary war, launched under false pretenses, against a country that didn't pose a clear and present danger to the United States and, most egregiously and despicably, their illicit and explicit approval of the torture of enemy prisoners.
Last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report detailing the Bush Administration's fingerprints on a plan, first hatched in 2002, to reverse-engineer the SERE training (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) given to some U.S. special forces units. The object of SERE is to teach special-ops personnel how to withstand the kind of interrogation methods they could face if captured by countries or militias that don't honor the Geneva Conventions. It was the creative idea of the White House to have SERE instructors turn around and teach torture techniques to covert interrogation teams involved in the War on Terror.
For years, this underground program remained largely and safely removed from public scrutiny; although it was in fact reported on, the administration engaged in its usual obfuscation and deflection while quietly charging those who dared to ask too many questions with being unpatriotic in a time of war. Over the past couple of weeks, though -- maybe emboldened by knowledge that their time is almost up and that they'll likely never be held accountable for their actions -- the Bush Administration's chief architects of this plan have begun, Colonel Nathan Jessup-style, to admit that they ordered the Code Red and would do it again if given the chance. Dick Cheney in particular confirmed in no uncertain terms that the U.S. tortured al Qaeda prisoners and all but dared potential critics to do anything about it.
He knows he can be as forthcoming -- to say nothing of brash and arrogant -- as he likes right now, because he knows that he's right: His critics in the incoming administration aren't going to do a goddamned thing about any of it. They'll talk tough -- say they're not ruling anything out and that investigating the past transgressions of the Bush clan is always on the table. But when all is said and done -- in other words, next Tuesday -- it will end the same way for Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, et al: They'll live out their lives in expensive homes far from Washington, DC, counting the money they're making from honorary corporate positions and speaking engagements. And they'll sleep very, very well -- with clear consciences.
The problem is that many of the Bush Administration's sins, with special attention paid to the issue of authorized torture, don't qualify as a simple case of a bunch of guys improvising during an unprecedented time in American history -- doing the best they could with what they had. George W. Bush and his cronies broke the law. Willfully. Wantonly. And if we truly adhere to the belief that no one is above the law, then that makes them all criminals.
I'm more than willing to admit that, from a political perspective, any attempt by incoming president Barack Obama to prosecute members of the Bush White House would be a lousy idea, one sure to be met with resentment from many of the leaders he needs to work with and outrage from a portion of the country he needs to help heal. Most Americans who consider the Bush era to be a dark age in our history are content to see its engineers and enablers thrown out on their asses, their lasting legacy one of unmitigated shame. Most people just want to move forward; that's what electing Barack Obama was all about. But if we remove the political question, what we're left with is solely a legal one: Did Bush and company break the law?
Again, they did.
And this country's standing and stature can't be restored simply by swinging a U-turn and looking toward a new kind of future without taking responsibility for the mistakes of the past. We'll never get our respect -- self and otherwise -- back if we just pretend like the last eight years never happened and let the men behind one of our nation's most embarrassing periods quietly walk away from the disastrous mess they made.
We don't torture. That's not who we are -- not what this country is about.
What we're about is bringing the guilty to justice.
Whether it's a foreign terrorist or a U.S. president.