Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Don't Underestimate Your Power

As it turns out, Barack Obama did indeed answer our question on Sunday, on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

Obama's answer is similar, but not identical, to the response posted on Change.gov, the Dec. 21 quotation from Joe Biden, which leaves the door open a tiny little bit for an investigation of crimes committed by the Bush administration.

The notion of avoiding this question by looking "forward as opposed to looking backwards" is patently ludicrous. As Biden said in the vice-presidential debates, "past is prologue." We cannot go forward effectively, in the direction we want to go, without paying close attention to what has gone before.

You can't possibly go from point A to point B unless you know where both points are. Knowing the location of point B won't do you any good at all unless you know where you're starting from, the location of point A.

And the concern about CIA operatives "looking over their shoulders"? All government employees should be looking over their shoulders to some extent. They're working for us, aren't they? They must always pursue their work in ways that uphold the Constitution and the Rule of Law. If that means "looking over their shoulders," then fine. Let them look.

A vindictive witch-hunt designed to satisfy partisan bloodlust could very well engender paranoia, not to mention doing more harm than good. But that is not at all what we're advocating. We're advocating a nonpartisan, measured, thorough investigation to find clear breaches of the law on the part of policy makers, especially those at the highest levels.

We're not looking for "a few bad apples"; we're looking for a few big kahunas. Given their bigness, they shouldn't be too hard to find, especially since a couple of them have already gone on national television and essentially boasted about having condoned torture.

Here's what Obama said on Sunday that I find most encouraging:
[The] attorney general ... is the people's lawyer. Eric Holder's been nominated. His job is to uphold the Constitution and look after the interests of the American people, not to be swayed by my day-to-day politics.
I think what Obama is saying here is that he's going to leave this question up to Eric Holder, who will not be as constrained by politics as Obama himself is. But he's also saying that, given that the attorney general is "the people's lawyer," it's up to the people to make their demands known to their lawyer.

He's talking about us, folks. "We the people" and all that. If we don't push for this, and push hard, it just isn't going to happen. But if we do push, it may very well happen. What Barack Obama did in that interview was to leave the door open—for us.

In the January issue of the Progressive, John Nichols tells an apt story about Franklin Roosevelt.
After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."
As then, so now. We have to make Obama do what I believe he wants to do. He's facing enormous political pressure from those who just want to let it all go, to let bygones be bygones and other such claptrap. But if he can point to the pressure coming from us, it will give him the political impetus he needs to do exactly what he wants to do. This is the nature of politics. The noisier the clamor, the more likely it is to have the desired effect.

In October of last year, Robert Borosage wrote, "If Obama is elected, he will have the moment, mandate, momentum, and moral armament to launch a new era of bold progressive reform." And I wrote in response that the mandate, momentum, and moral armament were not only for Obama, but for us. Obama cannot possibly effect bold progressive reform without noisy, clamorous, bold progressives pushing for that reform. Here's what I said in October:
The work that needs to be done to recover from the devastation wrought by the neocons is much too much for just one guy. ... To restore the Constitution, the balance of power, our civil liberties, a just and fair immigration system, a tortured economy, our standing in the world -- just to name a few -- we need to continue to be as engaged after the election as we are now.
I would add that actually we have to be more engaged now than we were during the election. We must not give in to the temptation to rest on our laurels. It's not enough to have elected Obama. We have to push now for what we know is right. We have to make use of the many avenues available to us to make our demands known. And after we've pushed, we need to push some more. This isn't going to be easy. That doesn't mean that it's not worth doing.

The support Obama needs from us is not our silent admiration but our noisy clamor for what is needed to move forward, from point A to point B. He's counting on our noisy goading. Some may say that we should just wait and see what he does before we voice our "criticisms." Don't think for a minute, though, that Obama isn't already experiencing plenty of pressure to maintain the status quo. To accomplish all that he wants to accomplish, he needs us to rouse the rabble and push like hell.

He cannot possibly accomplish all that needs doing on his own or with a bunch of half-baked politicians in Washington. Politicians are indeed constrained by politics. How could they be otherwise? But we are constrained only by the number of hours in the day and our convictions and passion for peace and justice and equity and the Rule of Law.

We are the ones who will make it happen. We really are the ones we've been waiting for. It would be a terrible mistake for us to underestimate our power at this critical juncture.

* * *
With that in mind, I want to encourage you, please, if you haven't already done so, vote for your top ten ideas for change in America at Change.org. I am especially urging you to vote for these two: (1) Appoint a Special Prosecutor for the Crimes of the Bush Administration, which is currently in 18th place and needs another 2,689 votes to make it to the top ten. (2) Get FISA right, repeal the PATRIOT act, and restore our civil liberties, which is currently in 8th place. Voting ends at 5 pm Eastern Time on Thursday, January 15. After you've voted, please encourage your friends and family to do the same.


  1. Mary, I've been thinking about this ... and I don't find it to be an uncomplicated issue at all. Your point about moving from point A to point B is well taken ... but, I can also see the point of starting where you are -- and heading toward your goals. To me, it feels like everything has shifted -- and let's go from here. Let's fix what needs to be fixed and head toward where we want to be.

    I totally agree with the desire you've expressed for nonviolence and love -- and, in an ideal world, that would be the only thing. But it isn't an ideal world -- there is violence visited upon us (and probably always will be) whether we have "brought it on ourselves" or not. As someone who has never been in combat or in the sort of danger that our special agents are, I find it impossible to say what I would do under certain situations. I'm not saying that the laws shouldn't apply -- but sometimes, they can't apply. Sometimes it could be dangerous to the whole world to stand on principle.

    I struggle with this whole subject of torture and "war crimes". To me, war IS a crime. It doesn't make sense to make delineations of what is "acceptable" and "unacceptable" in war -- it is ALL unacceptable. Human beings being murdered is unacceptable -- and it is murder, in my opinion, even if it takes place in a "war". But apparently this is sometimes inevitable? And you have to kill people to stop them from killing other people? (Side note: the violence against women all over the world makes me crazy! -- I would condone the use of violence to defend and protect women and girls around the world.) I think it is FAR worse to drop bombs and kill innocent civilians than it is to torture known terrorists in order to get information to save lives. Wherever there is power, there will be abuse of power -- and yet, I don't think it is necessarily good to "tie the hands" of the CIA, FBI, or other operatives in some situations. I want them to follow the law to the extent possible -- but when a situation becomes extenuating and time is of the essence, I want them to be able to make judgment calls. For them to be in higher positions, I would hope they would have good judgment.

    For example, if you knew there was a nuclear bomb that was going to go off in the United States -- and would surely kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans ... and you had captured one of the men who had set it up and he had to know where it was -- but wouldn't tell you -- would you condone torture to get that information from him? If all of your family were about to be brutally murdered, would you condone torture to save them? I would! I prefer peace. Of course, I prefer peace and diplomacy. But if it came down to a life and death situation, I would do anything to protect my loved ones and my country. So, it's not a black and white issue for me at all.

    I am no fan of Dick Cheney. But what if his smugness about waterboarding comes from something we don't know? (And while I don't approve of waterboarding in general, I also don't think it is any worse at all than a kid getting his leg blown off by a land mine or a wedding party being decimated by a bomb). What if (unbeknownst to the public), they got information through those tactics that saved thousands of American lives and he's feeling pretty darned proud about what he was willing to do to stand up for his country and save his fellow Americans? Would that change how you feel about him or about prosecuting these people? What if Madison, WI was spared a biological warfare attack by intel gathered by means you don't approve of? Would you be grateful -- or just angry that it wasn't done the proper way? What if the proper way would have never gotten results? These are things I think about.

    I've never been standing next to someone who was blown away. I've never been tortured. I can't say how I'd react in those situations. A lot of our veterans have been tortured. I think they'd have a much clearer vision of these things than I would ... which is not to say that I don't have a right to an opinion. I'm just admitting the limitations of my opinions. And I'm trusting Obama and his crew to do what they believe is right in the world.

  2. Torture is not only morally repugnant. It is utterly ineffective, even under the direst of circumstances. People who are being tortured will tell their interrogators anything to make the torture stop.

    Here are three good articles about the ineffectiveness of torture: http://blogs.amnestyusa.org/denounce-torture/archive/2006/06/10/614tw0igmvst.htm, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A2302-2005Jan11.html, and http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/etn/2008/alert/313/.

    Moreover, the practice of torture puts the men and women of our armed services in graver danger because they are at a much higher risk of being tortured themselves. Should they be captured, their captors will not feel constrained to respect the Geneva Conventions when we do not.

    War crimes are considered war crimes because we as a nation have agreed to the Geneva Conventions, which have gone a long way toward making the brutal practice of war less brutal. That war is brutal is not a reason to dismiss the need for boundaries and constraints in its practice. In fact, just the opposite. War's brutality must be constrained as far as possible.

    If we do not hold our leaders accountable, future leaders will feel free to do whatever they want to do without constraint. The whole point of being a democracy is that our leaders are accountable to us. If they are only accountable under certain circumstances, or if only some of them are held accountable, then we open ourselves up to worse abuses in the future.

    We should know this, because there have been abuses in the past; the people responsible for the Iran/Contra affair and Watergate were never called to account in a court of law. So here we are in a much worse mess. The cycle will continue until we stop it.

    I don't agree at all that sometimes laws cannot apply. The whole point of the Rule of Law is that law applies to everyone, all the time, across the board. No one is above the law. Ever. In times of crisis, principle is all there is to stand on.

    Just because our new leaders are principled and trustworthy does not mean that all of our future leaders will be. Eight years is a very short time. We must ensure that future leaders know that we as a nation are serious about upholding the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

    It isn't enough to hope that our leaders will have good judgment. They don't always. And if they are acting on our behalf, then there need to be clear guidelines about what is and isn't acceptable. Of course things aren't always clear-cut. That's why we have courts of law, so that lawyers and jurors and judges can weigh all of the complexities. Our system of laws and courts doesn't always work as it should, but we're way better off to work to improve that system than just to eliminate it when the people involved are too powerful or the circumstances too complex or too inconvenient.