Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has published in the NY Times a plea to pardon the officials who approved or conducted torture. This seemed to me ridiculous at first, but on reading his argument I find that it makes a certain kind of perverse sense. Given that the US government has shown itself incapable of prosecuting these atrocities, the only way to assert the principle that these were in fact crimes, and not simply exuberant excesses of patriotic zeal, is to issue pardons. It would also have the salutary effect of making explicit the intention of the US not to prosecute, opening the way for other governments and international courts.

But when you let that sink in, it makes clear how close the corruption of the American state has come to making the US ungovernable. A state that is incapable of punishing officials who conspire to commit some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times is either a tyranny or constitutional anarchy; and the US is definitely not a tyranny. The US constitution has had a good run, but it seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Despite its age, though, it can’t really be said that the US constitution died of natural causes. It is slow homicide, and as with so many foul murders, the perpetrators are those who most loudly proclaim their love. Andrew Sullivan has posted some select quotes from US conservatives, from the time when they believed — or claimed to believe, though even then that seemed remarkably credulous (probably reflected in their inappropriate references to bad apples) — that the torture regime at Abu Ghraib was a rogue aberration, bewailing the stain on the nation’s honour inflicted by a criminal few.

“What was done [at Abu Ghraib] was against 1) regulations, 2) army convention, and 3) civilized tradition. What do the reformers want? Pre-induction courses for U.S. soldiers in which they are told not to strip and torture captives and photograph them naked? Should there be, also, a course on how they should not fire guns at their own officers? Is there nothing that can be taken for granted?” – William F Buckley Jr.

Is there anyone on the right (other than John McCain, who gets a special pass on torture because of the confessional nature) who will now say, if those committing war crimes that besmirched the reputation of our country, and weakened its ability to promote its ideals and interests in the world, then all the more reason why they should be punished. Some of those who carried out the policy were sent to prison, as were some who leaked details to the press. But none of the culpable officials.

And if they won’t, if no one in one of the two major political parties can look past the partisan political advantage to fundamental questions of human rights and human decency, what hope can there be for the US as a democratic nation?

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