The Dream of Justice

18 April 2009

The Dream of Justice

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t look like Halle Berry,” said Whoopie Goldberg in a recent interview. “But chances are, she’s going to end up looking like me.” Barack Obama doesn’t look much like Gerald Ford either, but what are the chances that Obama will end up looking like Ford?

Gerald Ford, who unexpectedly became US president after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, gave Nixon a presidential pardon a few months later. If Nixon had been tried by the courts for the various offences he was accused of (and the tapes were there as evidence), he would have faced serious jail time — but it would have torn the United States apart.

On the other hand, issuing that pardon probably cost Gerry Ford the 1976 election, because somehow in the public’s mind it implicated him in Nixon’s crimes. In effect, Barack Obama has just pardoned all the torturers who worked for the Bush administration. To what extent will that erode his support among those voters who really believed that he would put justice ahead of pragmatism?

True, Obama has not pardoned the senior people who set the policy and the lawyers who wrote the legal defence for it, but they will clearly never face a court as long as he is in office. This seems like good politics to White House strategists at the moment — who needs a years-long court battle (with an uncertain outcome) to punish crimes that were committed years ago? — but it could come back and bite them.

It was useful to publish the actual memos that the Bush administration’s lawyers wrote arguing that a variety of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were legal. Some gentle souls will be shocked by the detailed descriptions of the techniques that the Central Intelligence Agency was authorised to use on detainees — although in fact much worse things were done to those unlucky enough to be “renditioned” for torture by various US allies.

But many people believe that “useful” isn’t enough. What these memos show is that between 2003 and 2008 US government agents were authorised to use at least one technique — waterboarding — that the same government had clearly defined as torture sixty years before, when the shoe was on the other foot.

At the end of the Second World War, US military tribunals treated Japanese officers who had ordered or carried out waterboarding on Allied prisoners of war as war criminals, and sentenced those found guilty of this form of torture (the Japanese called it the “water cure”) to punishments ranging from fifteen years at hard labour to death by hanging. By contrast, Barack Obama has declared that CIA agents who used the same technique will be guaranteed immunity for their actions. This can hardly be called justice.

On the other hand, did you really expect the US government to judge its own employees today by the same standards that it applied long ago to the soldiers of a foreign government that had surrendered unconditionally?

Did you really think that Barack Obama was going to unleash a legal process that would inevitably work its way up the chain of command and end by indicting George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

The United States is not a defeated power under foreign military occupation, and it is not going to put itself through all that. The torture has apparently now stopped in prisons that are under direct American control, and one hopes that serious efforts are being made by the US government to retrieve those detainees whom the Bush administration “renditioned” to other governments for much worse tortures, but that’s as far as it’s going to go.

We dream of a just world, but any grown-up knows that real life is very unfair. Good people suffer, the wicked prosper, and most crimes go unpunished. When the criminals are the servants of a government that has gone off the rails, it is even harder to punish the guilty because most of them can argue that they were only obeying orders. Moreover, the new government, faced with the decision to prosecute the criminals or not, will always put the stability and security of its own rule first.

That is why the new democratic government that came to power in 1994 in South Africa after the long nightmare of apartheid chose to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where former torturers and murderers were granted amnesty in return for full confessions, instead of seeking vengeance through the courts. Even less was done after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, despite the long and ghastly history of human rights abuses under the Communist regime.

There has been no change of regime in the United States, just a change of administration. The great majority of the military and civilian employees of the US government who must turn President Obama’s policies into actions are the very same people who previously did the same for former president George W. Bush. So Obama changes the policy on torture, symbolically condemns it by publishing the memos — and stops there.

The alternative — to seek justice for the victims of abuse even if the heavens fall — would probably cost him victory in a dozen other political battles over the next few years. Like most of us, he probably dreams of justice, but he has to deal with reality.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“We dream…regime”)