We humans are good at condemning other people’s sins of omission. There’s a whole publishing industry around how much the average German knew about Nazi atrocities, for instance, calibrating ordinary people’s exact degree of culpability for what was done in their names. But it’s much harder to admit the same faults in our own and our neighbors’ behavior.
As in many societies, the common culture of the United States is infused with a double dose of disincentive to recognize the abuse of power in high places. It’s a paradox that works to the advantage of abusers. On the one hand, deference to authority is equated with respect, implanting a strong suggestion: officials “must know more than we do,” they “must have good reasons” for their actions, it “isn’t our place” to question their motives, and the people who do so are “pursuing their own agenda, trying to tear government down.” This plays particularly well in settings of privilege, the type of school district, for instance, where it is possible to pull off presentations averring that “the policeman is your friend” without being laughed out of class.
On the other hand, especially in contexts where abuse is daily fare, the pervasive expectation develops that those who possess power over others will misuse it for their own benefit. What they do may be wrong, but it is to be expected, so why get all up in arms about it?
Sometimes both attitudes coexist in the same baffled mind, toggling it to a standstill like one of the those computers on the old “Star Trek” that repeats two conflicting directives until the whole mechanism melts down.
Caught between a crock and a scarred place, we stand by as leaders run rampant over the Constitution. Someone like George W. Bush benefits from our ingrained disbelief in both the extent of his disdain for civil liberties and our own capacity to do anything about it.
I’ve been thinking why recent revelations about Bush administration crimes against civil liberties have not instantly raised an outcry of epic proportions. As part of changing the guard at the Justice Department, following on President Obama’s call for greater transparency in government, nine Bush-era legal opinions were released this week to the press. The opinions attempt to legitimize appalling contraventions of the Constitution, such as using the military on domestic soil to carry out raids and seize property; supporting the suspension of First Amendment speech rights and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seize; and justifying “extraordinary rendition,” whereby prisoners are exported to nations allowing even greater ease of torture.
True, Representative John Conyers Jr., Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has called for a kind of truth commission to investigate Bush-era abuses justified in the name of the War on Terror. So has Senator Patrick Leahy; True Majority encourages you to support his call. A USA Today/Gallup Poll says that most people want some sort of inquiry.
But such calls originate with people who have seen the emperor’s nakedness all along, who may even to some extent feel vindicated by the recent revelations. I’m one of them: I signed petitions, wrote letters, published essays, gave speeches—and it all felt pretty futile until that first wash of relief when newly minted President Obama directed the closing of Guantanamo.
Being right, though, doesn’t mean one has escaped the cultural distortions that produced the problem. The aforementioned American Freedom Campaign, for instance, has displayed both a healthy respect for constitutional liberty and an unhealthy addiction to fear-induced adrenalin. Throughout the final year of the Bush administration, AFC kept warning of Bush administration plans for a coup: domestic use of the military, a state of emergency trumped up to postpone elections, the whole nine yards. This terrorized type of extremism turned people off, naturally—just as the will to reason leads us to give a wide berth to the man who walks city streets with a mad gleam in his eye, bearing a sign that reads, “The End is Near.”
The sealed-room character of AFC’s analysis is stifling. Once you get inside, there’s no exit: if I say they overreached with alarmist scenarios, they will deny it, asserting that it was only their warnings that stopped what could have happened from actually taking place. Now AFC has come out against a Truth Commission, saying we already know the truth. They want you to
send a message to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for a full criminal investigation to be launched.
This externalizing of our national misdeeds is familiar and understandable: when we see ourselves as the frustrated good guys and others as the scot-free evil-doers, there is only one way for the red fog of anger to subside. Someone must be punished.
Maybe so. Certainly the mental image of President Bush taking responsibility for his crimes is appealing, a true vindication of conscience. But because prosecution is about distinguishing the guilty from the innocent, I don’t think it would do much to change the cultural attitudes that allowed him to run amok in the first place.
Consistent with his conciliatory outlook, President Obama opposes a major investigation. According to the Times, he prefers “to fix the policies and move on.” For instance, the Obama administration has urged a federal court to dismiss detainee Jose Padilla’s suit against John Yoo, author of many of the government’s torture-justifying memoranda.
But I wholeheartedly support a Truth Commission because it would give all of us—the compliant, the deniers, the accusers, the perpetrators—the opportunity to examine our own roles, bringing to awareness cultural attitudes that had been operating unconsciously. Self-awareness precedes any intentional cultural change. Without it, we are doomed to repeat: the next crime, the next accuser, the next firewall of disbelief, the next rude awakening. A Truth Commission would give us all the opportunity to break this chain, thereby changing the culture that produces it.