Can History Absolve Us?

Nat Hentoff’s column in The Village Voice last week is worth a read… if you have the stomach for it.

While the Democratic Congress has yet to begin a serious investigation into what many European legislators already know about American war crimes, a particularly telling report by the International Committee of the Red Cross has been leaked that would surely figure prominently in such a potential Nuremberg trial. The Red Cross itself is bound to public silence concerning the results of its human-rights probes of prisons around the world—or else governments wouldn’t let them in.

But The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer has sources who have seen accounts of the Red Cross interviews with inmates formerly held in CIA secret prisons. In “The Black Sites” (August 13, The New Yorker), Mayer also reveals the effect on our torturers of what they do—on the orders of the president—to “protect American values.”

She quotes a former CIA officer: “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but . . . you can’t go back to that dark a place without it changing you.”

The prevailing ethical koan for those of us born after World War II has been something like this: “How could the culture that produced Bach and Goethe have produced Hitler and the Nazis?”  Will future generations wonder about the culture that produced Mark Twain and Aaron Copeland?

It is difficult to imagine any branch of a government, including Congress, beginning a serious investigation into its own war crimes as the crimes are being committed. However, we remain putatively a government of the people. Hentoff observes:

Few average Americans have been changed, however, by what the CIA does in our name. Blame that on the tight official secrecy that continues over how the CIA extracts information. On July 20, the Bush administration issued a new executive order authorizing the CIA to continue using these techniques—without disclosing anything about them.

If we, the people, are ultimately condemned by a world court for our complicity and silence in these war crimes, we can always try to echo those Germans who claimed not to know what Hitler and his enforcers were doing. But in Nazi Germany, people had no way of insisting on finding out what happened to their disappeared neighbors.

We, however, have the right and the power to insist that Congress discover and reveal the details of the torture and other brutalities that the CIA has been inflicting in our name on terrorism suspects.

Only one congressman, Oregon’s Democratic senator Ron Wyden, has insisted on probing the legality of the CIA’s techniques—so much so that Wyden has blocked the appointment of Bush’s nominee, John Rizzo, from becoming the CIA’s top lawyer. Rizzo, a CIA official since 2002, has said publicly that he didn’t object to the Justice Department’s 2002 “torture” memos, which allowed the infliction of pain unless it caused such injuries as “organ failure . . . or even death.” (Any infliction of pain up to that point was deemed not un-American.) Mr. Rizzo would make a key witness in any future Nuremberg trial.

This past week was Larry Craig’s fifteen minutes of infamy. Busted in a Minneapolis men’s room in June, he copped a plea, hoping the whole thing would go away. And it did, for all of two months. Is not the relative quiet on the part of Congress and the MSM regarding our brutalities a Larry Craig strategy writ internationally large?

History, however, has a way of catching up to us. And, as Hentoff titles his column, History Will Not Absolve Us.

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