Questions of transitional justice in America

Today, in a post about elite responsibility (note: political responsibility is NOT the same as criminal guilt) for Bush Administration crimes, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

As the Bush administration comes to a close, one overarching question is this: how were the transgressions and abuses of the last eight years allowed to be unleashed with so little backlash and resistance? Just consider — with no hyperbole — what our Government, our country, has done. We systematically tortured people in our custody using techniques approved at the highest levels, many of whom died as a result. We created secret prisons — “black site” gulags — beyond the reach of international monitoring groups. We abducted and imprisoned even U.S. citizens and legal residents without any trial, holding them incommunicado and without even the right to access lawyers for years, while we tortured them to the point of insanity. We disappeared innocent people off the streets, sent them to countries where we knew they’d be tortured, and then closed off our courts to them once it was clear they had done nothing wrong. We adopted the very policies and techniques long considered to be the very definition of “war crimes”.

A while back, somewhere else, I wrote about the need for a truth commission (but not a truth and reconciliation commission) to address the human rights abuses –the very serious crimes— perpetrated during the years of the Bush Administration. I’ve altered the little piece it a bit and decided to post it here, because this is a subject that has been weighing on my mind in the last few days:

I agree with Nick Kristof that we need a Truth Commission of some kind.

Reconciliation is a non-issue. There are no parties to be reconciled, just the agents of a soon-to-be-out-of-power criminal regime and their numerous and varied victims. Moreover, the victims are of a dozen or more nationalities and spread out over six continents. Very few of the surviving victims and loved ones of deceased victims will ever have to share the same social or civic space –or the same space, period– with the perpetrators.

I think that the creation of an evidence-seeking Truth Commission that neither automatically precedes criminal trials nor offers any kind of immunity would be the best option for us in the years ahead.

This is my stance for a few reasons:

1) We have obligations, moral and legal, to bring those who committed serious crimes (especially serious human rights abuses) to justice. This point is basically skipped over by a lot of people who just focus on the political impracticality and general unlikelihood of criminal prosecutions.
2) A Truth Commission of the kind I described earlier would allow us to get a fuller picture of what crimes our leaders committed, against whom, and by what means. It would also help would be future prosecutors prepare for possible future trials, which brings me to my next point:

3) Even an Obama Administration would be unlikely to prosecute high ranking former administration officials, even if they openly admitted to serious crimes, as some already have. Neither the national mood nor the political reality in Washington will be conducive to prosecutions in 2009. (This is not to say I approve; I don’t think either of those things should be considered, but I know they would be/will.) But what about 2012 (if McCain is elected) or 2016? With that many years between the administration in office and the one that committed the crimes (not to mention the distance between Democratic leaders of the day and their complicit predecessors) there might be more willingness to finish the task of confronting the past –-by holding trials.

4) The tremendous amount of media coverage an American Truth Commission (!) would attract, as opposed to Congressional hearings, would establish some kind of at least semi-coherent national narrative about what happened, or, more precisely, what was done in the names of all Americans, between 2001 and 2009.
5) It’s important to not just move on from the things this administration has done, but to face them head-on, and to demonstrate that, while the US is not a perfect country, it is not the sum of the actions of the Bush Administration. The best way to demonstrate this [after electing a dramatically different leader and electorally renouncing the ideology of the previous ruling party], of course, is to compel our criminal former officials to admit what they did, and for current leaders to express how sincerely they will work to see that past abuses are not repeated in the future. Trials and truth commissions anywhere are set up by political elites, but their processes and outcomes have a defining effect on the masses.

Do I think a Truth Commission will be established? I don’t know. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I am absolutely not willing to rule it out. And until someone can propose a better idea, I will continue to see it as our best option for both truth and justice in the years after the Bush Administration leaves office.

Earlier today, the Serbian Government saw to it that Radovan Karadzic was arrested at long last. Though there are few parallels between Serbia’s tumultuous relationship with justice and the rule of law over the past fifteen years and the United States as it faces the end of its most criminal administration in living memory, there are these: Serbia is a better country today than it was yesterday. It will be viewed more kindly by outsiders, and its political culture will continue to develop in a more positive direction now that it has made this symbolically and practically important break from the past. The same could be said for the US (though, obviously, in very different ways) if enough political will was mustered to hold to account those administration members responsible for the human rights abuses –torture, detainees beaten to death, secret prisons, etc– that have become synonymous with “America” and “Americans.”

Reflecting on the Chilean Truth Commission, Chilean human rights activist and former commissioner José Zalaquett said two things I think apply universally: “One cannot expect morality from politicians, but one can hold them to the ethics of responsibility,” and, “To make a clean break from the past, a moral beacon needs to be established between the past and the future.”

I am in my very early twenties. The actions of the Bush Administration have already left a devastating legacy for my generation, a legacy that will not be undone even by the impaneling of a Truth Commission.

But a Truth Commission would be a start, the first hopeful chapter in a grim story for which the ending, if nothing else, is ours –and not theirs— to write.

Given the results of the election, I am more hopeful than I was when I wrote this, and would like to take back what I said about the political environment of 2009 not being conducive to a reckoning.  The ideology that inspired and directed the actions of the U.S. Government over the past eight years has been discredited and rejected publicly.  It’s time to create our moral beacon for the future.

One thought on “Questions of transitional justice in America

  1. Pingback: More discussion of a truth commission « Transitionland

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