This is the world according to renowned radio host of "A Prairie Home Companion" and famed story teller, Garrison Keillor. Keillor recently wrote a piece that was published on Salon.com entitled "Let War Crimes by Bygones". That title alone is perhaps one of the most absurd headings to a piece that should enrage all of those people who have placed their trust in a little thing called "the rule of law".
Keillor begins his piece describing how he sat next to Ted Stevens at a dinner a few years back and how he is happy to see that Stevens' conviction has been overturned. Keillor continues:
Let him go fishing in the cold, clear rivers of Alaska and examine his conscience, as we all do in our better hours, and let us all move on to something more promising.
I feel similarly about the Bush people whom some Democrats want to charge with war crimes. The widespread waterboarding and other acts of torture carried out in secret CIA prisons are no small matter. The free play of sadism on the helpless in the name of national service is not to be ignored. What's needed is a fair and thorough congressional investigation. Subpoena witnesses and lay the whole wretched business out on the public record. Look into the heart of darkness and meditate on it. But don't round up a few symbolic suspects and throw the book at them and let all the others go free.
That's right, Keillor actually suggests investigating acts of torture to the fullest extent possible and then, when the investigation is done and we have perhaps revealed criminal wrong-doing, let those responsible take actions equivalent of going "fishing in the cold, clear rivers of Alaska" to examine their conscience.
What's needed here is not punishment, but truth. When I hear Democrats talk about "holding them responsible," I smell the sour righteousness of the victorious lording it over the vanquished.
Holding the Bush administration responsible for torture would give us some high political drama that would feed the media goat for the next two years and also sap the body politic.
Retribution is not smart politics. That's part of what killed Rudy Giuliani's run for president, the voters' sense that he was possessed of a cruel urge to pay back old debts. He was meaner than we want a president to be. I agree with Sen. John McCain when he says, "We need to put this behind us; we need to move forward."
and there, finally you have it. That same tired idea that has been uttered by everyone from John McCain to President Obama, the need to move forward and not focus on the past. Keillor advocates truth over punishment, as if these two ideas are competing against each other. What happens when the truth indicates that some very serious laws were broken? Doesn't punishment typically follow for those who break the law? I have not seen a single murder trial in which the judge makes opening remarks during which he states that the goal of the trial will not punishment, but to simply seek truth.
While Keillor's nose detects the "sour righteousness of the victorious lording over the vanquished", my nose detects the smell of a commentator who is having a difficult time separating differences in political ideology from adherence to the rule of law. This is not about being a "mean" President, or about paying back old debts. What this is about is the need to launch serious investigations into potential criminal activity committed by some of the highest ranking government officials over the last eight years. Equating the policies of torture with settling "old debts" is disingenuous to the very issue before us.
Not only does Keillor miss this distinction, but he also tries to provide some justification for the likes of John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and other OLC lawyers who attempted to provide legal cover for the policies of the Bush Administration:
Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city -- I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things -- and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security. As Orwell said, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." I think the American electorate knew whom they reelected in 2004. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform. They ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes.
This sounds similar to the justification that Condoleeza Rice gave to a question posed by a student at Stanford University where she stated that unless one was in a position of responsibility after the 9/11 attacks, one cannot begin to imagine the dilemmas that those in power had in keeping Americans safe. Keillor, like Rice, attempts to somehow justify these actions that were taken after 9/11 as a means of trying to protect the American public in unprecedented times. Keillor goes even one step further and indicates that the American public re-elected President Bush in 2004 because they were "rough men" who stood ready at the foot of our beds to guard us from those who would do us harm.
As Keillor ends his piece, he rattles off other projects that he would rather see this new Administration undertake instead of upholding the basic principles of law. He would like to see trains connect cities throughout the Midwest, he would like public education to be restored, and he fears that health care reforms would be forgotten all so the "left could have at the right". Keillor wrote his piece while attending "Poetry Out Loud" where children from around the country recite well-known works by various poets. Keillor ends his piece by saying:
I would forgo the pleasures of tormenting a few malefactors for the rightness of hearing a kid from Newark stand up and give an impassioned recitation of "When in Disgrace With Fortune and Men's Eyes."
Perhaps that child would even grow up to have a famous radio show and be fortunate enough to have his/her views published for thousands of readers across the globe to read. Is it Keillor's hope that this child will then also have enough courage to, as Peggy Noonan stated and Keillor's advocates in his writing, "just keep walking" when faced with potential criminal wrong-doing? Perhaps it is this type of courage, the kind that it takes to bury your head in the sand, that Keillor hopes to transfer to the generation of children that he was watching read poetry. The type of courage that rings true in a quote that you may recognize from a familiar face:
"Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it."
- Garrison Keillor