The dream of justice

2009-05-05 00:00

“I don’t look like Halle Berry,” said Whoopi Goldberg in a recent interview. “But chances are, she’s going to end up looking like me.”

Barack Obama doesn’t look much like Gerald Ford either, but what are the chances that Obama will end up looking like Ford?

Ford, who unexpectedly became United States president after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, gave Nixon a presidential pardon a few months later. If Nixon had been tried by the courts for the various offences he was accused of (and the tapes were there as evidence), he would have faced serious jail time — but it would have torn the U.S. apart.

On the other hand, issuing that pardon probably cost Ford the 1976 election, because somehow in the public’s mind it implicated him in Nixon’s crimes. In effect, Obama has just pardoned all the torturers who worked for the George W. Bush administration. To what extent will that erode his support among those voters who really believed that he would put justice ahead of pragmatism?

True, Obama has not pardoned the senior people who set the policy and the lawyers who wrote the legal defence for it, but they will clearly never face a court as long as he is in office. This seems like good politics to White House strategists at the moment — who needs a years-long court battle (with an uncertain outcome) to punish crimes that were committed years ago? But it could come back and bite them.

It was useful to publish the actual memos that the Bush administration’s lawyers wrote arguing that a variety of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were legal. Some gentle souls will be shocked by the detailed descriptions of the techniques that the Central Intelligence Agency was authorised to use on detainees — although in fact much worse things were done to those unlucky enough to be “renditioned” for torture by various U.S. allies.

But many people believe that “useful” isn’t enough. What these memos show is that between 2003 and 2008, U.S. government agents were authorised to use at least one technique — waterboarding — that the same government had clearly defined as torture 60 years before, when the shoe was on the other foot.

At the end of World War 2, U.S. military tribunals treated Japanese officers who had ordered or carried out waterboarding on Allied prisoners of war as war criminals, and sentenced those found guilty of this form of torture (the Japanese called it the “water cure”) to punishments ranging from 15 years at hard labour to death by hanging. By contrast, Obama has declared that CIA agents who used the same technique will be guaranteed immunity for their actions. This can hardly be called justice.

On the other hand, did you really expect the U.S. government to judge its own employees today by the same standards that it applied long ago to the soldiers of a foreign government that had surrendered unconditionally?

Did you really think that Obama was going to unleash a legal process that would inevitably work its way up the chain of command and end by indicting Bush and Dick Cheney?

The U.S. is not a defeated power under foreign military occupation, and it is not going to put itself through all that. The torture has apparently now stopped in prisons that are under direct American control, and one hopes that serious efforts are being made by the U.S. government to retrieve those detainees whom the Bush administration “renditioned” to other governments for much worse tortures, but that’s as far as it’s going to go.

There has been no change of regime in the U.S., just a change of administration. The great majority of the military and civilian employees of the U.S. government who must turn Obama’s policies into actions are the very same people who previously did the same for former president Bush. So Obama changes the policy on torture, symbolically condemns it by publishing the memos — and stops there.

The alternative — to seek justice for the victims of abuse even if the heavens fall — would probably cost him victory in a dozen other political battles over the next few years. Like most of us, he probably dreams of justice, but he has to deal with reality.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

What is waterboarding?

Waterboarding induces panic and suffering by forcing a person to inhale water into the sinuses, pharynx, larynx and trachea. The head is tilted back and water is poured into the upturned mouth or nose. Eventually the subject cannot exhale more air or cough out more water, the lungs are collapsed, and the sinuses and trachea are filled with water. The subject is drowned from the inside, filling with water from the head down. The chest and lungs are kept higher than the head so that coughing draws water up and into the lungs while avoiding total suffocation.

— http://waterboarding.org/info

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