In an earlier post I addressed the cockamamie notion that torture pardons would be good for America, but it's an idea that just won't go away. Jonathan Bernstein has written favorably about the pardon idea; I agree with him on a lot of issues, but when he writes something like this, I find myself wondering whether he lives in the same country I do:
If torture is to remain banned, it's going to take reviving the consensus of the elite against it that was broken in the Bush administration. Pardons take care of the legal jeopardy part for the officials; generous pardons might lessen their reputations as bad guys.But within red America (and much of swing-vote America), the officials responsible for torture have never been regarded as bad guys, at least not for their involvement in torture. (Dick Cheney is seen as a bad guy for screwing up two wars and shooting a guy in the face, but not for torture, except to lefties) As I noted yesterday, Americans are extremely ambivalent about torture in any case. (In fact, they've found torture more and more thinkable since we first started discussing it in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations.) Officials who were involved in torture don't think they need pardons to restore their reputations; with some exceptions (see Eric Fair's guilt-ridden op-ed about his own involvement in torture), they feel just fine about what they did, and they know the country has no interest in pursuing them legally. (I cited a lot of polls in yesterday's post, but I should have mentioned the 2009 CNN poll in which 57% of Americans said they didn't want Congress to investigate this, while 55% said they didn't want an investigation by an independent panel.)
A combination of public fatigue, intelligence community rank-closing, and right-wing noise-machine pressure was enough to compel President Obama not to pursue legal cases against the responsible parties; the obvious effectiveness of the pressure campaign is the only Get Out of Jail Free the torturers and torture architects really need. Why would they want pardons? Even if there were no statutes of limitations, what possible future president is in the offing who might threaten them legally?
Bernstein imagines combining pardons with a truth-and-reconciliation commission:
... the reconciliation part of this has to precede the commission because, without that, the people who signed off on and carried out torture aren't going to testify, and Republicans will dismiss the commission as a partisan witch hunt (as many of them are doing to the Senate report)."Early in the Obama administration, this approach might have worked"? Seriously? Early in the Obama administration, Republicans dug in their heels and opposed virtually everything Obsma did. If Obama had pursued this course of action, Republicans would have responded exactly the way they did when he made moves to close Guantanamo within his first year in office, and to try Gitmo prisoners in U.S. courts. A truth-and-reconciliation commission would have been blocked as quickly as funds to close Gitmo were blocked, almost certainly with many votes from scared, browbeaten Democrats.
The only way to get the truth, in other words, is to make it clear that a commission will treat the people involved generously, even if its investigation shows the horrors of what they did.
Early in the Obama administration, this approach might have worked. Six years in, positions have hardened, and I'm less optimistic. Still, pardons are the only way to make sure that the leaders of the U.S. never take this path again.
For the foreseeable future, we will never arrive at a bipartisan consensus that torture is wrong. Support for what they still consider mere "enhanced interrogation" is as much a tribal marker for conservatives as opposition to Obamacare or climate-change denialism. We lost the right on this issue a decade ago, John McCain and his friends excepted. They're not coming back.