George Santayana’s adage that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has been quoted (and often mis-quoted) quite a lot recently. But it is not enough to simply remember the past in order to prevent the travesties of justice we have seen happening over the last decade in the United States, again and again. Patrick Leahy’s perhaps well-intentioned (if he’s being naïve) or misguided (if he’s being politically expedient) call for a bipartisan ‘truth commission’ based on such as the Church commission or the truth commissions in South Africa, while offering the enticement of granting immunity from prosecution, is simply not enough.
Nor is it enough for the current president to insist that, regardless of whatever crimes his predecessor or those in his administration have committed, the United States now obeys the law, and that he prefers to ‘get it right moving forward’. It is simply not enough.
It’s not enough, but not because of any inappropriate thirst for revenge on the part of the now liberal majority, or excessive fear that we might jeopardize a desperately needed economic recovery if we antagonise those on the right willing to obstruct the current administration should prosecution for war crimes be seen as potentially feasible against members of their own party. Those in our government who have committed war crimes must be aggressively prosecuted; not simply because we are legally obligated to under our own laws, and under laws and treaties our country was instrumental in establishing for the entire world. Not because this country’s reputation has been devastated by such acts of barbarity and inhumanity on the part of our leaders we would instantly condemn as those more apposite to tin-pot dictators and tyrannical madmen. It isn’t because we are morally obligated to pursue the ideals of justice on principle. It isn’t even because preventing such prosecutions would in turn make us all accessories after the fact, a position that fills me with a sense of both loathing and outrage.
It is vital for our survival as a nation, as a people, as a society, and even for the future of our entire world that we do so. Because in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘it is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past’. She wrote that in 1963, and was speaking about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, but what she wrote then, about a different time, a different nation, a different crime, hold true today. ‘It is essentially for this reason: that the unprecedented, once it has appeared, may become precedent for the future, that all trials touching upon “crimes against humanity” must be judged according to a standard that is today still an “ideal”’.
For if we do nothing, if we protect those accused of war crimes from investigation out of a misguided, even perverse ‘respect’ for the offices these individuals held, if we allow those who have abused the power of their office in order to commit war crimes to escape from being judged, claiming immunity for reasons of exigent circumstances, we establish a precedent. It isn’t enough to remember, it is necessary to also act, if we are to prevent history from repeating itself. The Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds and George Bushes will return, again and again, with different names, and different faces, but the same lust for violence and disregard for the rule of law that should be enforced to protect us all from crimes against humanity, and it will be those of us who established the precedent of bestowing immunity on the perpetrators of today’s war crimes from their acts who will be responsible for tomorrow’s crimes against humanity.
It is not enough to simply remember. Those who will not face the past will face a future neither you nor I will want to live in. That is the Janus effect Obama will have to deal with, and soon, if our country has any real future to speak of.