« "The Recovery to Come" | Main | Fed Watch: TALF Disappointment and the Fed's Balance Sheet »

Friday, April 24, 2009

Paul Krugman: Reclaiming America’s Soul

We need to "regain our moral compass":

Reclaiming America’s Soul, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” So declared President Obama, after his commendable decision to release the legal memos that his predecessor used to justify torture. Some people in the political and media establishments have echoed his position. We need to look forward, not backward, they say. No prosecutions, please; no investigations; we’re just too busy.

And there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because ... never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass ... is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — ...laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability? ...

Tim Geithner ... wouldn’t be called away... Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away... Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job... America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama... The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who ... probably just don’t want an ugly scene... But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

I wrote this several days ago, but never posted it. It echoes much of the above:

When asked whether people will be held accountable for their actions during the time the last administration was in power, this administration says that it's time to move on, to put the past behind us, to let bygones be bygones. But that is not a reason to prevent people from having to take responsibility for their actions.

So I am not convinced. If the country were to fall apart should the rule of law prevail, then perhaps the calculation changes. Is that what would happen? Will the country fall apart if the guilty are pursued? No, it won't, we'll be better for it. Will it make it harder to form a coalition with people on the right in order to get other things such as health care reform done? Yes, it probably will, but so what? Bringing people to justice is always inconvenient and costly, there are almost always externalities, but we bring people to trial anyway.

What will happen that's so bad, other than the president will have a much tougher time with the opposition? If that's all it is, that's no reason to stop the pursuit of justice. Sure, you can argue that more people will be hurt if we fail to pass health care than will be helped by prosecuting, some argument like that, but that's not how we make these decisions. If a factory owner commits a crime, and sending that owner to jail will cost the town many, many jobs and create hardship, do we say, that's okay, you have us over a barrel, so go ahead and do whatever you want? If the entire nation is seriously at risk, then, sure, intervene, but that's not the case.

What about the argument that it would harm the CIA? If we are afraid people who will do these things won't want to work there, so what? In any case, start with the people in charge, those at the highest levels who made the decisions, and work down from there. We can figure out where the line is. If people knew, reasonably, that they were breaking the law, then hold them accountable. Some were relying upon shaky legal foundations (shaky gives it more credit that it deserves since it implies it was standing at all, however unsteadily), and that makes it harder, but not impossible.

And why is up to one person anyway? I thought we had a legal process, not a king. The power of the pardon is available, of course, but shouldn't we find out what happened and establish guilt before we start handing out the pardons? The truth matters too.

Furthermore, the president is not an unbiased, impartial observer here. If people are pursued for their crimes and he doesn't stop it, he can well imagine acts of retaliation later, where people attempt to try him or members of his administration for violating laws. But that's not a reason for him to intervene and stop prosecutions, the conflict of interest is a reason to step aside. If there's a flaw in the system that allows frivolous attempts to prosecute the president or his close associates, then fix it, but don't let it stop people from being held accountable for their choices. Again, if the nation comes under threat from the pursuit of justice, that's a different matter, but that case has yet to be made.

There are probably constitutional and legal principles I'm unaware of that are at play here, but this stinks. The rule of law applies to everyone, not just when it's convenient.

    Posted by on Friday, April 24, 2009 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (110)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Paul Krugman: Reclaiming America’s Soul:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.