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

Roger Cohen: Only By Ignoring Wrongdoing Can We Preserve The Republic

I had to figure that Roger Cohen, writing in this morning's New York Times, was going to lose me the minute he began:

Language is lethal. The Bush administration's legal memos opening the way to torture are a reminder of the intimate link between a bureaucrat's lawyerly subordinate clause and a man's near drowning.

Spare me. There's nothing unhealthy about the release of those legal memos. They are, in fact, good medicine. A tonic for the constitution and the Constitution. They do a body politic good. You want to know what's a lot closer to being lethal? Nearly drowning.

Cohen, you see, doesn't quite want the story of our illicit torture regime to be swept under the carpet entirely. At the same time, he doesn't want anyone to face any consequences. So, in lieu of actual prescriptives, we get a cockeyed dance of inane half-stepping, coupled with instances in which actual words seem to send Cohen into some sort of psychological panic: "I keep re-reading some of the sentences in the memos from the dark side. Like a labyrinth, they lead back in on themselves."

Cohen writes:

Opacity is the refuge of the faceless tormentor. The constitutions of totalitarian states are always unreadable, impenetrable -- and very long. In a thicket of words lies plausible deniability when the time for horror's accounting arrives. That hour always comes around.

I could not agree more. The difference between Cohen and me, however, is that I take accountability seriously. Cohen's solution would be to build the tormentors an opaque refuge.

So I'm wary of the clamor for retribution. Congress failed. The press failed. The judiciary failed. With almost 3,000 dead, America's checks and balances got skewed, from the Capitol to Wall Street. Scrutiny gave way to acquiescence. Words were spun in feckless patterns.

Those checks and balances are recovering now. I don't think this recovery would be served by prosecutions, either of C.I.A. operatives or those who gave them legal advice. Such legal action, if initiated, would split the intelligence services and the military in paralyzing ways at a time when two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are still being fought. The country would be lacerated.

[...]

A Truth Commission could address the broad collapse of accountability that opened the way for an imperial presidency and the use of cruel and inhuman treatment, while avoiding a facile search for scapegoats that would allow too many to disregard their own small measure of responsibility.

This makes no sense. Cohen is in favor of a Truth Commission -- a structure by which the "lacerating" stuff would be brought out into the light. But then, he would hold no one accountable? Seriously, Cohen needs to think before he accuses other people of spinning words in "feckless patterns."

Think about this nonsense. Could you imagine if your local district attorney announced: "We have identified Joe Schmoe as the person who murdered Jane Doe. However, we are declining to prosecute, because it would tear the community apart." Meanwhile, there is a criminal literally tearing the community apart, but to Cohen, the important, preservative work comes when we, as a nation, agree to stop pondering painful words and metaphors and sentences. Let us instead ponder, LOSE OURSELVES IN, the sentences of our new President that make us feel better.

Cohen writes: "That, of course, is Obama's favorite word: responsibility. I think it demands some acknowledgment that, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Seriously? I'd hope that God would require a substantially less feckless understanding of the word "responsibility."

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