Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Calling to Account

Debate swirls around Obama’s decision to release the ‘torture memos,’ the Bush administration’s legal opinions crafted to justify extreme interrogation techniques, part of a larger attempt to expand the scope of allowable actions in a broadly-defined War on Terror. On the right, much wringing of hands: Obama is emboldening our enemies! On the left, much gnashing of teeth: The torturers must be prosecuted! In the middle, the question: Does the call for responsibility mean our country will be mired in a past we need to put behind us?

Accountability vs. moving on: this dilemma is as old as the first time a spouse caught cheating begged his or her mate: Am I going to have to pay for this forever? I remember the time a boyfriend got involved with someone while he was on an extended business trip. I was devastated by the breach of trust but perhaps even more so by the surprising and uncomfortable fact that I simply was unable to look beyond his infidelity. My mind understood that his fling was essentially an acting-out during a time when we were under the stress of having to make some major decisions (Get married? Have a baby?) and that we, as a couple, mattered more than what was, in reality, an ultimately meaningless encounter. My heart, however, recognized only one truth: Ouch! Ouch ouch OUCH! I couldn’t let go and our relationship didn’t survive.

Some people in this release-or-not debate bring up the enduring controversy of Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon; interestingly both sides claim that event as support for their point of view. The anti-releasers note that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, with its institutionalization of the politics of revenge, we as a nation did need to put all of that behind us: prosecuting Nixon perhaps would have caused a fatal division in an already fractured country. The pro-releasers argue that since the pardon continues to be contentious, it indicates that moving on healed nothing: it simply allowed a villain to get away scot-free. However, Ruth Rosen ( and others point out that Nixon didn’t escape justice. He resigned, in disgrace, and his name is forever associated with corruption. Prosecution could well have been a blessing in disguise, in that, to some, instead of a crook he might have become a martyr.

We certainly hold on to the past when that past is the vessel for happy remembrances. One doesn’t secure a promotion, get engaged or finish a marathon only to be chided about dwelling on things no longer relevant. No -- one relishes, savors, celebrates. Every choice we make, every action we take, and every unexpected piece of luck or hardship becomes part of the fabric of our lives, intrinsic to both our being and our becoming.

If actions have no consequences then they have no value. Not only are wrongdoers emboldened, if people are allowed to commit harmful deeds without any ramifications, then the ultimate gift we, as humans, have to give – forgiveness – is impossible. Forgiveness requires accountability and acceptance and is the balm that heals wounded and perpetrator alike.
I believe President Obama is right in releasing the torture memos. He is wise to assure those told that these procedures were legally sanctioned that they will not be prosecuted. However, those who crafted and implemented the heinous policies that resulted in torture, by whatever word you call it, should be investigated and appropriate action taken. Otherwise, we, as a nation, move on from a dark and disturbing period having learned nothing.

I think back on the cheating boyfriend. I finally realized he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk about what had happened with any insight. He wanted I’m sorry to be the end of it: no discussion, no introspection, nada. The wiser part of me perceived that his unwillingness to accept any real consequences meant that the experience had taught him little beyond the cost of getting caught. If responsibility means having the guts to see things as they are, act accordingly even when it’s tough, and learn whatever lesson is offered, then perhaps the person I held accountable was myself.