CNN.com and the other media are all reporting today the Obama administration's and Eric Holder's decision not to prosecute CIA and other intelligence officials for participation in torture that was authorized by officials in the Bush Administration and the Department of Justice. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations are crying for blood, claiming that torture is against the law regardless of by whom, when and under what circumstances it was authorized.
It seems to me that there are two questions here. First, what should be done about the despicable and unjustified actions of people who, in the name of National Security and following directions from higher authorities, committed these acts? The Nuremberg War Trials and other tribunals have made it clear over the course of history that the "They told me to" argument never justifies illegal and evil acts. This is a foundational principle of any democracy and any civilized people.
It is also true, however, that the same could be said for millions of actions throughout human history. Just in the twentieth century alone, we can count hundreds of examples of government-sponsored atrocities, illegal acts and violations of human rights. No nation and no people are exempt from this. The only question is whether we are learning and growing and moving in a positive direction toward more civilized and humane practices in our domestic and international affairs. From apartheid to gulags, from death squads in South America to genocides happening around the globe today, we have a lot of evil to take responsibility for.
The second question: what to do about prosecuting those who participate in these kinds of behavior when the problem is widespread, systemic or 'legitimized' in one way or another? The Obama administration has not and is not justifying anyone's past actions. The whole idea of amnesty -- in any context -- is not based on forgiving or justifying crimes or denying the rule of law. Amnesty (or in this case, the decision to not prosecute systemic wrongs of the past) is based on taking responsibility in the present for past wrongdoing. This is not as a matter of assigning or accepting blame, but of owning the fact of what has happened and recognizing that what is needed are actions to put the past behind us so we can focus and direct our actions and policies on creating the future we want.
To be sure, some top-level individuals should be (and I believe will be) called to account by history, if not by the law. But self-righteous agendas that attempt to punish a few for the wrongs of the many or that serve no other purpose that to keep us mired in the past are in their own way part of the problem they are trying to solve. Once the point is made and we have addressed whatever systematic and unacceptable behavior that we no longer will allow, then it is time to stop the blaming and indignant protestations and get on with rebuilding, healing and learning from our mistakes.
I have enormous respect for human rights organizations and support several with contributions and, in some cases, direct action. I don't support all the polices of these organizations when their strategies stop focusing on creating a more civilized and humane world and attempt to become part of the systems of governance they are trying to enlighten and educate. They should be applauded for having kept the transgressions of the last Administration in the public eye and in no small part contributing to the election of Obama whose polices and position on torture have been crystal clear from Day One. But they should now turn over the question of how the past will be addressed to those we've elected.
I remember that when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon there was an outcry from many who thought we should conduct a public lynching. In retrospect, history has born out President Ford's understanding that little would be gained and that any prosecution of the past would only consume the energy and spirit of the nation. President Obama is making a similar decision in not pursuing a wholesale witch-hunt within the Intelligence Community, an action that, at best, would destroy organizational morale and effectiveness and, at worst, would put our nation and all of our futures at risk.
I am glad that Eric Holder has had the guts to go forward with common sense, a practical view of fair play and a decision that will allow us to face the future with the confidence that, in spite of all the abuses of the Bush years, we haven't lost our generosity of spirit and magnanimity in confronting some of the darkest aspects of ourselves.