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Isn't "Laying Blame for the Past" What we Used to Think of as "Justice"?

04/17/2009 11:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama did something which should be commonplace but which, in this terrible time, is now thought of as optional for high officials, which is to say, he obeyed the law. The law in this case required him, in response to an ACLU lawsuit, to disclose the Torture Memos, prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel under the Bush administration. (It is a sad testimony that doing as the law requires is, in our political climate, an act of bravery.)

The Torture Memos show an attention to the detail of pain reminiscent of The 120 Days of Sodom. They reveal that at the highest level we were a government of sadists, supported by a covey of lawyers (Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Bradbury, Rizzo, Gonzales--look at their faces, look at them) who felt their job was to come up with legal justifications for that sadism.

Yet even while the memos provide incontrovertible evidence of war crimes, President Obama 'split the difference' by stating that the torturers would not be held accountable for their actions. He said,

"This is a time for reflection, not retribution... nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

Imagine this last statement trotted out (for instance) by the Phil Spector defense. Would you take it seriously? Would you buy it? Or would you laugh hysterically and forward it to Paul Slansky?

Isn't "laying blame for the past" exactly what our justice system was designed to do? Isn't that the basis of every criminal case in every criminal court in the nation?

The idea that criminal acts must, indeed should, go unpunished, if--and only if--they are committed by the ruling class or government officials, is at the heart of what's wrong with our republic. It is as appallingly true with respect to the looting of the economy as it is with respect to the war crimes these memos disclose. (Note to NPR: if Sylvia Poggioli were kidnapped off the streets of Rome, put in a coffin-sized container, deprived of sleep for eleven consecutive nights, had her head slammed against a wall, were made to feel as if she were drowning, would you say that she had been subjected to "harsh interrogation techniques"? Or might you use the word torture?)