Image © Austin Cline
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One issue which is of great concern to many liberals and progressives right now is the extent to which the Obama administration will seriously and vigorously investigate possible crimes committed by the Bush administration. A great deal of responsibility will of course rest with the Congress, and there are good reasons to hope that they will start taking their oversight duties seriously, even if belatedly and in retrospect. The Obama administration will have to become deeply involved too, however, for anything of substance to happen.
Cooperation is necessary in order to find and turn over relevant evidence; action is necessary when it comes to police investigation and perhaps eventual criminal prosecution. Neither a Democratic Congress nor an Obama administration can do it all alone, but together it may be possible for them to get to the bottom of all the secret polices, procedures, and programs that were ostensibly undertaken in the name of the American people, yet were apparently used against the people and kept hidden from them as much as possible.
Insofar as these policies and programs were legal but undesirable from a liberal perspective, it should be enough to simply make all the facts known — we shouldn't try to launch criminal prosecutions over policy differences. Democracy requires that government be as open and transparent as possible, however, and the Bush administration thwarted this principle in every way conceivable. The more we know about what was really done, the more reliably we can evaluate the administration's actions and the more we can do to prevent similar action in the future.
Even if we could know for certain that no investigation would turn up any genuine criminal wrongdoing, the investigations would still be necessary in order to rectify the problem of secrecy and send the message both to the American people and to future administrations that such levels secrecy are not acceptable. Not doing the investigations, or only limiting investigations to where the likelihood of criminal wrongdoing seems high, would send just the opposite message: that extensive but technically legal secrecy is acceptable in American democracy.
Of course, we can't know in advance whether any of the secret programs involved criminal wrongdoing or not, and so long as we believe that crimes should be punished, this is yet another reason to have investigations. Anyone who says that there shouldn't be investigations unless there is clear evidence of crimes is being disingenuous — and that's putting it mildly. Given the cloak of secrecy that has been pulled around the Bush administration's actions, there won't be evidence of guilt or innocence unless and until at least some investigating is done. People who object to investigations without evidence of crimes aren't stupid and surely know this, so their disingenuousness is arguably just an attempt to help cover up possible crimes — and that makes them every bit as guilty as the original criminals.
There is another way in which both Democrats and Republicans have been conspiring to cover up possible crimes by the Bush administration: an appeal to a supposed need for "political harmony." According to this argument, investigations into possible crimes will just create bad feelings which will make it difficult for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Since the business of government requires that they work together, avoiding the investigations is really in everyone's best interests. There is so much wrong with this argument that it's doubtful that there is even anything right with it. The premises are wrong, the inferences are wrong, and motive for offering it is not merely wrong but positively immoral.
The hidden premise that Republicans would be justified in developing hard feelings over investigations of other Republicans is wrong. They'd be justified if the investigations were conducted for partisan political reasons; otherwise, their commitment to justice and liberty should override any partisan political loyalty. If not, then the following inference — that they would be harder to work with — is irrelevant because such Republicans really aren't worth working with in the first place. You don't make political alliances with people who want to subvert justice in order to protect fellow party members, you send them to jail for corruption and covering up crimes.
Technically, the motive for offering an argument can't invalidate the argument itself — arguments must stand or fall on their own based on their own internal logical and the truth of their premises. However, when a person offering a transparently false argument is motivated by a grossly immoral goal, that motive has to be taken into consideration. In this case, the question before us is why anyone would offer a transparently false argument that would possibly allow criminals to get away with potentially horrible crimes without the full extent of the crimes even coming to light, never mind anyone having to take responsibility for and pay for those crimes?
The answer is not too hard to discern: the desire for "political harmony" does not arise out of an interest in getting government work done more efficiently, but rather in protecting a political and corporate class which has become too inbred, too insular, and too chummy for the good of the rest of the nation. Journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and corporate executives have all been sucked into a social circle where membership is so highly prized that they will subvert both law and morality in the interest of maintaining their status in the group.
Holding one another truly accountable for crimes committed against the American people would expose too much and hurt friends, so it's in everyone's interest to hush things up. They're like a sick, dysfunctional family where no one wants to even admit to the addictions and crimes of their relatives, much less try to stop them from molesting the neighborhood kids or call the cops to protect those kids. All that matters is keeping the family safe, no matter what happens to the community and children outside it.
Journalists are guilty of it when they refuse to ask hard questions or do serious investigations lest that damage their access to power. Democrats are guilty of it when they argue against official investigations because it would strain relationships "across the aisle," or when they endeavor to purchase bipartisan good will by tacitly agreeing to ignore past crimes. Well, damn your access to power and damn your precious political relationships. If you conspire in such ways to help conceal possible crimes, then you belong in prison cell right next to the original criminals. In fact, I'd like to see you serve double the prison time — maybe if we come down harder on people who help in the cover up, they won't be so eager to make it so easy for political sociopaths to harm the nation.
This image was originally part of a series of anti-German propaganda posters from World War I.