David Petraeus, Barack Obama and the Failure to Look Back at Human Rights Violations

07/13/2011 11:22 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

During his confirmation hearings to become the head of the CIA, General David Petraeus spoke to the issue of torture during the Bush/Cheney years with an unexpected metaphor. He said that he hoped he did not have to look in the rear-view mirror regarding these human rights abuses. Petraeus prefers to instead look ahead as the new CIA chief. My reaction to this is that I hope I am not on the road with him. In fact, it is a traffic violation to not to have a rear-view mirror and obscures your ability to make fully formed decisions about the road ahead. Once he gets that rear-view mirror fixed, maybe Petraeus ought to drive up to Mount Vernon now that he has more time and read what George Washington told his troops during the formative years of this country and its tradition of looking back in order to know the way forward to justice. To make a long story short, the nation's first President said 'no torture.'

Not looking back is as dangerous in cars and history. Ask anyone who's taught a new driver or has heard of the oft-quoted maxim of George Santayana. Eric Holder has just decided to selectively look back and hold accountable two CIA people for the alleged killing of people under their care. The rest of the cases from the Bush/Cheney period will not be looked at. Leon Panetta, now leaving the CIA for the Department of Defense, concurred with this judgment and the elimination of any attempt or will to look back at others who might be prosecuted were their crimes examined. Two will be tried and the errors and crimes of two terms of torture will be hung on their head. In our society, we're supposed to understand the difference between symbolic and actual justice enough to recognize that "scapegoating" is not justice. Two of the administration's top officials want to scapegoat and to "move on."

Now, just to refresh for a moment, what is the Obama administration forgetting? They are giving tacit and clear approval to grant immunity to felons who tortured people, who have dropped drone bombs on innocent people, who sent people from one country to another country to be tortured under the quaintly jargoned term of "rendition," who have seen that "detainees" were waterboarded over and over and over even after it was recognized as torture by all but the Star Chamber of the previous administration. Prisons run by our military were run like all squalid and neglected jails, as dangerous places to be, to marginally live, to be underfed and to perhaps die outside of any system of civilized justice or rule of law. Other countries were drawn into this web as well. Allies provided secret prisons. Abu Ghraib became a name of infamy that resonates along with the much-loathed Gitmo detention space. Bagram prison's very walls have been painted with the screams and moans of long-suffering people, some probably guilty and some probably not. But all of them were and are untried in courts of law. All of them were denied the rights that, when they were denied a couple of centuries ago, spurred this country to undertake the American Revolution. The Obama administration is letting all this go instead, it is all receding into the rear-view mirror much as one might imagine a hit-and-run victim does in the mirror of a driver that has tried to ignore the fact that actions have consequences..

Two of the top people entrusted with overseeing and ensuring a system of real justice continue to serve in this administration and have declared that they want to dismiss and call off the serious accusations of the human rights community. One is a former soldier, and one is a former Congressman. Eric Holder will get hell for chasing two of the alleged killers, but he should get worse for letting all those other unexamined violators go free. The President, a former constitutional law professor, endorses all of this. Truth in human rights for our own people, soldiers and mercenaries is lost. We the American people are silent and thereby allow the legacy and reputation of our nation to be dirtied by all this abuse. Just like we all remember the Cardinals of the Inquisition, we will remember the metaphorical Cardinals in our government who did (and are doing) exactly the same thing, but with no excuse of a long-past culture. No excuse unless our silence lets them remake it with popular impunity.

At the same time, Prime Minister Omar Bashir of Sudan will hopefully join the Serbian and Rwandan accused defendants in the International Criminal Court. Peru has put its president into jail for human rights abuses. Report after report issued by the large human rights groups have detailed the abuses of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hu Jintao in China, and Than Shwe in Burma. Human rights violators are in dockets all over the world as the flow of progress gathers pace, but the river of justice seems to get shallow and sluggish here in the a country that has been called the "cradle of freedom." Why? It is because of these decisions and others like it to disregard the past crimes suffered by victims and the refusal to look back before looking forward.

Of course it would be hard and partisan for Obama to chase these American violators of human rights. But where it is easy? Nowhere is the answer. It is always hard. But the victims, the millions who suffer need some sense of justice, some sense of decency coming back, or some sense of one day this will be better. Each violator needs jail time. It is that simple. The rest of the world is awaking to this fact and proving it to be true. But here tow of our key people in new jobs is walking away from the victims and their need for justice. But the truth is we American need to prove to the world that we can and will pursue our own just like we want them to do the same. But more importantly, we need an election that brings truth to power. Obama has left off the violators from the Bush/Cheney era. Bush and Cheney and their ilk walk free in a world. Hopefully, a judge somewhere will drop a warrant on them when they travel into their jurisdiction. For the first time in contemporary memory, justice for survivors of American-initiated torture and human rights violations will depend on other people in other countries and their systems of justice.

The lessons of history show us that leaving people unaccountable does not settle or reconcile. Witness the attempts to leave Pinochet unaccountable and how the lack of reckoning with the past has caused divisions in Chilean society for decades. Watch the struggle over accountability and transition in Cambodia where finally there is at least minimal accountability and legal prosecution for some of the greatest treachery of the Khmer Rouge years. See the elaborate process for disclosure and healing that has transpired in post-Apartheid South Africa and how the lessons of the future are reaped from sowing the past with truth. In stark relief and contrast against these backdrops, General Petraeus is calling on us to become voluntary amnesiacs, to disregard the fractures of our human rights traditions and respect for civilized law. Tom Friedman has called for a different party to engage honestly in concerns of economics. I want all parties to respect the rule of law, even under duress and pressure to do otherwise. Anything less isn't merely driving without a rear-view mirror, it's speeding into the future with a blindfold on. The victims of torture and a nation of human rights defenders deserves much better. This administration has promised hope, not delusion. Let us apply pressure to see that it happens. Call and write your congressional representatives and local papers to call for precisely the reckoning that we need to look backward and only then to be able to move forward.