The Witch Hunt Fallacy:
Call me stupid and paint me pink, but if witches really existed, then wouldn’t you want them hunted down and killed? We’re not talking about your mom’s friend who became a Wiccan priestess after her divorce and likes dancing naked around a bonfire every Mid-Winter’s Day. We’re not talking about your average misunderstood old crone from the other side of the tracks who pokes the powers that be in the eye every so often with her sly gestures and wily ways; we’re talking about real witches – the kind that distort reality and revel in violence and the blood of innocents. We’re talking about creatures from the darkness that boil children in pots and eat them with butter.
See, the problem with the metaphor of a witch hunt, in and of itself, is that those kinds of witches don’t actually exist – and any effort to track them down naturally leads to the incarceration and destruction of innocent lives. The shit that happened in Salem all those years ago, the madness of the Palmer raids, or the quest to uncover agents of Moscow in the State Department or in the Guatemalan hillsides were all witch hunts of that order. And in a very real way, Binyam Mohamed was caught up in a witch hunt of that sort.
But, if we can define witches as those who would pervert morality and legality for their own violent and hateful ends, then the definition fits for some senior officials in the Bush administration. If we can so define witches in that light, then shouldn’t we prosecute and punish them?
Or, alternatively, maybe we should just call them what they are: criminals.
To the Surly Bartender, that’s just common sense. But how should we go about it?
One avenue that has recently been championed by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is to fashion a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” modeled partially on those that have been used in Rwanda and South Africa, and partly on the Church Commission that looked into abuses of executive power during the early 1970s. In Leahy’s words, the best way to help heal the nation “would be a reconciliation process and a truth commission. We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without any axe to grind. Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for the purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts.”
Pay attention to that last phrase, “not for the purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble facts.” Specifically, Senator Leahy is proposing a pantomime of justice with backdrops of melodrama and cloaks of immunity. He’s talking about a public psycho-drama catharsis where the end is letting the torturers walk. With all due respect to the Senator, that is bullshit.
Who exactly should be “invited” to come forward? Dick Cheney himself, the President, or maybe the legal advisor who wrote the notorious “torture memo” for the administration, John Yoo? It is becoming ever clearer that Yoo was tasked with providing a legal rationale for torture by his bosses. He was told, essentially, that the administration wanted Jack Bauer Power, and it was his job to forge the legal shield. Mr. Yoo is, at the time of this writing, facing disbarment for creating a legal fiction with foreknowledge and malice.
As for Cheney, he’s already come forward quite openly about torture. He supports it and believes that it was both necessary and proper – and he wears the Yoo memo as his talisman of protection from prosecution. He has already admitted, on national fucking television, that he believes, explicitly, that ordering the torture of “enemy combatants” like Binyam Mohamed was right and proper, and by doing so he acknowledges, implicitly, that slicing into a man’s testicles (or waterboarding him, or forcing him to live in complete isolation for months on end, or sexually humiliating him, or keeping him awake for days at a time, etc.) is justifiable. It is not.
Dick Cheney and Jeffrey Dahmer might, some dark and fiery night in the Goebbels wing of hell, come to mutual forgiveness, but in neither case do their personal convictions excuse their crimes, however righteous they believed their actions to be. And to an administration, a nation, that for years has shown increasingly less mercy for violators of the law, to have a Truth and Reconciliatory chat with the ex-Vice, would simply solidify the cresting reality that there are, in fact, two tiers of law in the United States.
Recently the Salon.com pundit, Glen Greenwald, recounted a story of American Justice that laid this truth bare. Greenwald reported on a homeless man named Roy Brown, who recently robbed a bank of $100. Brown, 54 of Shreveport, Louisiana, approached the bank teller with one of his hands under his jacket and told her that he was robbing the bank. The teller handed Brown three stacks of bills, but he only took a single $100 note. He said that he was homeless and hungry. He apologized. Then he left the bank.
The next day Brown, his personal sense of morality eating at him, voluntarily surrendered himself to the police and told them that “his mother didn’t raise him that way.” Brown told the police that he needed the money to stay at the local detox center. He was hungry and had no other place to sleep.
In Caddo District Court he pleaded guilty to the crime and the judge, citing explicit sentencing laws, gave Mr. Brown 15 years in prison for first degree robbery.
That’s just sick. And while we likely cannot correct that wrong, we do have a choice. Either we can allow the President’s Men to, again, count their many blessings at having been born and raised in conditions that led them to power and wealth rather than homelessness and self-destruction – or we can remind them that they are no more above the law than poor Mr. Brown. Where is the justice in letting thugs like Cheney or Yoo go free when a repentant junkie gets the book thrown at him for trying to get clean and have a safe place to sleep on a winter’s night?
We’ve already got 2 million people in prison in the United States, by far the largest per-capita incarcerated population in the history of the world. Why can’t we find a jail bunk for a couple of well-connected rich guys who think it’s cute to bring back The Inquisition? I mean, you know, just for diversity’s sake!
In the Surly Bartender’s mind, if the United States hopes to regain and re-burnish its nobility, it must act forthrightly to punish those who violated our sacred laws and our very morality.
There is no doubt that an aggressive prosecution, with real punishment and real jail time for violators of the law, would be politically dangerous for President Obama. And leaving this in the hands of Congress is folly. An independent prosecutor must be given subpoena power and must dig through the sewage of our recent past if America is to ever again proclaim itself a bastion of decency in an increasingly beshitted world.
At least that’s what the Surly Bartender is hoping for.
Hope can be our bridge to a better world, but if we are too cowardly to fight the fires raging in our recent past, then we are doomed to plummet and will deserve the fall.