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Monday, January 12, 2009

Move on?

Should we just move on? This is one of the central questions lingering as we approach the end of the long national nightmare known as the Bush administration. Should our elected representatives investigate and, where necessary, prosecute the abuses of the outgoing administration? Or should everyone just be thankful that it's all over (if it is) and focus on the future?

Both sides have reasonable arguments. On the one hand, justice must be done. For all those who died because of false information about WMDs and terrorist ties. For those who have been held in detention camps. For those who have been "rendered" to other countries. For those who have been tortured. And this is only looking at the crimes and misdemeanors associated with the "war" on terror. This doesn't take into account the destruction of the economy, the incompetence around Hurricane Katrina, the cronyism in the Vice-President's office and any number of other possibly prosecutable offenses.

On the other hand, there are those (and not just those who have a personal stake in it) who say that it would be better for our government to save its energy to focus on more pressing concerns--namely, all those issues mentioned above, which are still wreaking havoc with the national well-being. Leaving aside for the moment the question of why our representatives can't do both, which is the more pressing concern?

The temptation to move on is great. So many people are exhausted. But there would be a certain satisfaction in seeing Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others hauled into the dock. And for their apologists, many of whom are crying loudly that now is not the time--that the nation has bigger worries--it is tempting to ask how these critics felt back in the halcyon days of the Clinton impeachment. Did the nation have nothing better to do then? True, this was pre-9/11, and the country was in a comparatively better place, but there must have been SOMETHING else going on.

The basic mistake that the "move on"-ers make is conflating investigation with stagnation. They don't see that asking questions about what happened, and prosecuting those actions that need to be prosecuted, IS moving forward. If it weren't, why conduct trials at all? Crimes that are being prosecuted are necessarily "past"--we don't yet have the technology or clairvoyance to prosecute people for things they are going to do in the future. But we don't often see a defense attorney arguing for acquittal on the grounds that something is "done": "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is true that my client killed Mrs. McGillicuddy, but since she's dead anyway, you might as well just let him go."

Society's interests are served by maintaining the rule of law. Society needs to move on from the sins of the past, but it is not up to the sinners to determine when.

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