A TRC for the Bush Years?

Senator Patrick Leahy proposed yesterday in a speech at Georgetown that we open a truth and reconcilliation committee to bring to light our engagement in acts of torture under the Bush administration. While the impulse to revelation is laudible, I am not persuaded that this is a case for a TRC.

Foremost, the conceit of a TRC is that those who participate are granted amnesty. That grant of amnesty may be an accommodation to reality. Frequently in cases where TRC’s are used it is practically impossible to prosecute and punish everyone responsible for acts of atrocity; and in light of this justice gap, there is a political decision to forego punishment both because any prosecutions would be selective and because a TRC can achieve a more expansive account of the past than would be provided by a smattering of individual criminal trials. Amnesty may also have a more normative bent, recognizing that many of those who participated in past abuses did so out of a justifiable sense that what they were doing was right, or at least not illegal.

It’s hard to see the first justification for a TRC in the case of torture and other human rights violations perpetrated under the Bush administration. As a matter of fact, the numbers of those closely engaged as primaries or accessories in acts of torture are unlikely to be so large that it is impossible to investigate thoroughly and, if appropriate, prosecute all cases. Similarly, when viewed in light of the pervasive cultures of abuse addressed by the TRC in South Africa, say, it is hard to make the case that acts of torture committed by or with the support and assistance of government agents were, in all respects, “legal” from the point of view of the perpetrators. Agents of Bush policies might claim that they got legal advice to the effect that what they were doing was legal, but bad legal advice is seldom an excuse in the criminal law and, without more, it is not clear to me that the fact that the attorneys in question worked for the President makes a material difference. Suggestions that the President himself may have endorsed acts of torture does little to clarify matters unless one accepts Nixon’s view that what the President does is legal simply because he does it. I do not.

During last night’s press conference, President Obama fielded a question about Leahy’s proposal from Sam Stein of the Huffington Post about Leahy’s proposal. His sensibe answer, consistent with representations he made during the campaign, was that “My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.” Bravo; which makes all the more unhappy the fact that Obama’s Department of Justice has taken the baton from the Bush Administration in obstructing efforts by torture victims to seek justice.

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