07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Free Bernie Madoff

"[W]e need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

--President Barack Obama, January 11, 2009

What if, instead of sentencing Bernie Madoff today to spend the rest of his life in prison, a judge decided that we should let the criminal mastermind "move forward" and enjoy his golden years? After all, he's already been publicly disgraced, no one will ever trust him with their investments again, so what harm could possibly come from freeing him?

There would rightfully be a public outcry of the first degree if such a thing came to pass. We are a nation of laws. We believe in justice for all - not just for some. Madoff bilked thousands of Americans out of billions of dollars, and he must answer for that.

President Obama would never consider pardoning Madoff for his crimes. But Obama's statements that we should "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" when it comes to the Bush Administration's policy and practice of torture fly in the face of the values of our country.

The release this spring of the so-called torture memos confirmed what we'd long suspected. Bush Administration officials - including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - explicitly authorized heinous acts of torture.

Worse, they used torture (they prefer to call it "enhanced interrogation") to try to find information that would link the 9/11 attacks to Saddam Hussein, pressuring military officials "to do whatever it took." They authorized such atrocities to justify their own false claims about the need to go to war in Iraq - for political cover.

We cannot simply turn a blind eye to the past. Neither our Constitution, nor our conscience, allows it.

The President and members of Congress who have sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution have an obligation to investigate the Bush Administration torture policy, and to bring to justice anyone who broke the law. A first step must be the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate these possible abuses of power.

The torture of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib and other prisons is undoubtedly one of the ugliest chapters in American history. Thankfully, there were a handful of civilian and military officials who risked their careers to try to put a stop to torture, and I applaud their uncommon courage. But President Obama is wrong to think that we as a nation can simply "move forward" without holding anyone accountable.

After all, why would we even consider letting former Bush Administration officials, who allegedly violated international law and who most certainly tarnished our nation's reputation, off the hook while insisting on life in prison for Madoff? Their suspected crimes are of an entirely different order of magnitude than what Madoff did.

Or maybe we value money more than human rights. I sincerely hope that's not the case.

Bob Edgar is the President and CEO of Common Cause.

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