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Tuesday, 16 February 2010 05:12

Justice's Vengeance: The American War Crimes Revenge Fantasy That Will Not Go Away

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by Meg White

Retribution is not gazpacho in February. On the contrary, regardless of temperature, revenge is a dish best served appropriately.

Therefore, while an investigation into the war crimes of the Bush Administration would be a long-awaited (and perhaps satisfying) occurrence, the idea that it would play into a revenge fantasy is not a good enough reason to avoid it. I'd say that's a reason to embrace it.

Revenge has gotten a bad rap. But it is an element of justice that, while we might like to, cannot be ignored. After all, where do you think we got the notion that the punishment should fit the crime? The use of measured and appropriate revenge, of course.

Revenge has played an important part in human history. The position of judge in a tribe or small community often materialized as a way to mitigate cyclical revenge killings between rival clans. In his 2008 article in Annals of Anthropology, Jared Diamond explores revenge killings in Papua New Guinea, concluding that while most modern societies have given over the job of seeking justice to government organizations, vengeance remains one of the strongest of human emotions. Furthermore, he finds that when justice is not carried out correctly, it can damage us on a fundamental level.

The problem is, our culture sees revenge almost exclusively as a savage response to a personal affront. As a result, we're somehow ashamed of our anger over the elimination of basic human rights and civil liberties in this country. And by that shame, we allow ourselves to be painted as part of a bloodthirsty witch hunt, when it's truth and reconciliation we desire.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Vengeance is an integral part of our judicial narrative, and denying that denies the subconscious damage that can be done by not seeking justice.

Clearly, in order to be desirous of revenge, one has to be injured in some way. By denying a need for vengeance, then, we're denying that injury has taken place. To say our culture was not significantly damaged by the actions of the Bush Administration would be counter to the rhetoric of presidential candidate Barack Obama. We have not forgotten the ephemeral campaign promise to uphold the constitution and reinstate the rule of law upon this land.

He knew we were hurting then. How is it that the president cannot see that his standing between an angry, hurt people and justice will only cause us to turn against him?

While the American people and perhaps those silenced at the Justice Department might feel the need for revenge, the mood on Capitol Hill and in the White House appears to be one of quiet complicity. From an editorial in The New York Times this past weekend (emphasis mine):

There are times when governments fight to keep documents secret to protect sensitive intelligence or other vital national security interests. And there are times when they are just trying to cover up incompetence, misbehavior or lawbreaking.

Last week, when a British court released secret intelligence material relating to the torture allegations of a former Guantánamo prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, it was clear that the second motive had been in play when both the Bush and the Obama administrations and some high-ranking British officials tried to prevent the disclosure.

The Times ends the piece calling for "a real accounting of the Bush administration’s abuses" after basically blaming the current lack of action on the Obama Administration's cover-up of illegal deeds.

Of course, that's not the narrative that has been constructed over the past week or two. Jane Mayer's New Yorker article, released in print yesterday, paints a picture of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel running around the capital wringing his hands over what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is going to do to halt the closure of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

This may have truly been a major concern for Emmanuel back when Graham was still amenable to working with the administration. But as Glenn Greenwald so aptly pointed out in a piece yesterday, that's no longer the case:

Can someone point to all of the crucial GOP support for health care reform and the rest of Obama's domestic agenda that would have been lost had Obama angered the GOP by reversing and/or investigating Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies? 

It was painfully predictable from the start that the GOP would impede Obama's agenda no matter what he did, which is what made all those "post-partisan" proclamations nothing short of sad.  Where is this vital GOP cooperation that would have been lost had Obama fulfilled his campaign pledges to "change" these Terrorism and civil liberties policies?  It's almost as hard to find as the secret weapon Lindsey Graham possesses for single-handedly preventing the closure of Guantánamo if he's angry.

Now it appears that the narrative being handed to the media is one of reconciliation. From yesterday's New York Times:

Now Mr. Holder has switched from resisting what he had considered encroachment by White House political officials to seeking their guidance. Two weeks ago, he met with advisers there to discuss how to unite against common foes. They agreed to allow Mr. Holder, who has not appeared on a Sunday talk show since entering office, to speak out more; he agreed to let them help hone his message...

In interviews, White House officials uniformly conveyed support, even sympathy, for Mr. Holder. “He’s in a very tough spot,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, who added that he would help Mr. Holder with a communications strategy only after the legal decisions had been made. “All he wants to do is bring these people to justice.”

I'm sorry, but if I were having messaging problems, the last people I would turn to is the increasingly tone-deaf communications people at the White House.

But going back to Greenwald's aforementioned piece, he points out that the idea of Emmanuel and Holder playing nice together also brings back bad memories of the previous administration:

Independently, Rahm Emanuel is the absolute last person who ought to be exerting influence over the Attorney General's decisions regarding where and how to try Terrorist suspects; remember when all Good Democrats agreed that Karl Rove's attempts to influence the DOJ was really bad because prosecutorial decisions are not supposed to be politicized?

Now that we've established that the call for an investigation of Bush/Cheney-era crimes has not in the least been silenced, let's go back to that supposedly shameful notion of an American revenge fantasy.

One very important but often dismissed function of justice is that it helps members of a community accomplish revenge without resorting to activities that may disrupt the tribe as a whole. This becomes important when we're talking about the function of terrorism in the global community.

For example: If victims of the Bush Administration's rendition and torture program cannot have their grievances redressed in court before lawyers of the Obama Administration -- who continually reprise the same arguments of their predecessors and deny victims even an apology for being falsely detained and tortured -- the likelihood of such victims turning against the West in violent ways is much greater.

Just as the existence of Guantánamo is seen by the administration and many others as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations, so should the underhanded techniques of the Obama Administration's lawyers.

So if we count the things in common between closing Guantánamo and investigating the Bush Administration's legal violations, the list is growing. Now both initiatives can count universal Republican opposition. If Obama maintains the status quo of just talking about these things, revenge fantasies can be directed at him on either side come election time. For progressives, both issues represent broken promises; for conservatives, they're both emblematic of looming threats. For everyone else, they're a signal that politics as usual are alive and well in the capital.

Of course, this situation doesn't add up to a lost cause just yet. Back in August, Holder announced the launch of a preliminary review into the alleged crimes of the Bush Administration to determine whether or not the appointment of a special prosecutor will be necessary.

The limited scope of such an investigation caused observers to liken it to the extremely flawed Abu Ghraib investigation under which a few sacrificial lambs were thrown under the bus in order to appease the revenge fantasies of the American people. I'd like to believe the Justice Department thinks that Americans are too shrewd to take our anger at the shredding of the constitution on some Lynddie England character at the CIA. This is obviously bigger than that.

The passage of time is an unavoidable fact. Though justice is more satisfying when it is immediate, it is a cultural necessity than can -- like revenge -- be served cold.