I originally thought of this week’s selection — posted a day late — in relation to the elections going on in South Africa. But then Hampton’s post from yesterday made me think of it from a different angle.
Ina lot of ways I agree with Hampton that any attempt to punish theuse of torture would risk being both compromised by politics andhampered by the complexities of parsing who should be held responsiblefor what. That’s what I was referring to when I saidthere would be weaknesses to both criminal prosecutions and a truthcommission. In other words, I acknowledge the possibility that I’marguing for an ideal proceeding that can’t exist in the real world.
Andyet, had someone suggested in 1984, when this song was released, thatSouth Africa might find a way not only to end apartheid peacefully, butto address its legacy in a way that accorded dignity to both victimsand victimizers alike, that, too, would have sounded like an ideal proceeding thatcouldn’t exist in the real world. What it took to make that proceeding a reality wasa shared humility on the parts of both victims and victimizers before atask that was orders of magnitude greater than what the U.S. isconfronted with today.
The realist in me agrees with Hampton,that perhaps President Obama has once again managed to expertly threadthe political needle, disappointing absolutists on both sides of theissue in order to achieve the limit of the possible. But the idealistin me says that the same America that found a way to address whatamounts to racially motivated torture in the Jim Crow South can now find away to address officially sanctioned torture in black-site prisons. Andif it really is true that we can’t judge our own, then we should letsomeone else do it for us, because we will have essentially forfeitedour right to stand outside the jurisdiction of the InternationalCriminal Court.
Another thought that this song triggers is theway in which history, while most often written by the victor, is moreindelibly marked by the prisoner. From Anatoly Sharansky in the formerSoviet Union and Nelson Mandela in apartheid-era South Africa, to AungSan Suu Kyi in today’s Burma, few images have offered more inspirationto broad popular movements than that of men and women held in unjustcaptivity.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and AbuZubaydah are not fit to be counted among their ranks. But in torturingthese two men, and others like them, we have granted them a moral staturethat should not have been theirs. We turned their just captivity intoan unjust one, and their justified fate as prisoners into anunjustifiable one as victims. That as much as anything else is ourcrime. And whatever harm we managed to avoid as a result of doing so has in all likelihood been outweighed by the power of inspiration we haveinvested them with for those who would follow in their footsteps.
I’m not going to turn this issue into a crusade, because I do think that we can put this behind us and move on, with little practical cost. The damage has already been done, and it’s not as if this is the first time in its history that the U.S. has failed to live up to its ideals. Our international standing has always recovered in the past, and with increased vigilance, we can also contain the threat to our domestic civil liberties that I mentioned in my previous post.
But if the only reason we don’t address these crimes is because the task seems too daunting, then we should remind ourselves of the long road that South Africa traveled. No one could have imagined a day of Truth and Reconciliation when the apartheid regime had yet to Free Nelson Mandela: