Monday, July 13, 2009

Making an Impression

Hilzoy reflects on the question as to whether or not the Obama administration should investigate if the Bush administration and the CIA broke the law by withholding information from Congress.

This is not a matter of focussing on the past at the expense of the future. We will not have the future we want if government officials can break the law with impunity, safe in the knowledge that no future administration will be willing to take the political heat and investigate them.

And there’s another aspect to this: the whole world is watching.

People around the world are not under any illusions about whether or not we tortured people. They know that we did, and that fact has already, and rightly, done enormous damage to our image.

What they don’t know is whether we are prepared to do anything about it. Do we just lecture other people about their shortcomings, or are we ready to face up to our own? Most of the people I’ve met abroad assume that we will do nothing. They don’t think this because of any particular dislike of the United States; they just assume that that is the way things work. If we do not hold anyone to account for any of the crimes that were committed under the last administration, they will not be surprised.

If we do hold people to account, on the other hand, that will make an impression.

In light of what President Obama said about the protesters in Tehran after the June 12 election and the regime’s response to the demonstrations — “the world is watching” — it is a glass that looks both ways. We can’t expect anyone to take us seriously on other issues — the economy, climate change, hunger, health care, or any of the other problems that we all face globally — if we can’t live up to our own simple ideal of the rule of law.

I would not derive any pleasure out of seeing an investigation into the Bush administration tactics, and unlike some people, I would not cheer to see Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfled sitting in the dock on trial. That would mean that we as a people failed in our stewardship of our government and allowed them to do what they did and not be held accountable if they did anything illegal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it to the full extent of the law; just the opposite. That would make an impression on the world and future administrations that no matter how unpleasant or shameful it may be, the pursuit of the truth is worth it.