Getting the Right Thing Done

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

This space doesn’t usually take requests, but when my 94-year-old mother calls up and insists, it’s hard to say no. What she wanted when she called last week is not hard to come up with, after all: a forthright denunciation of the Obama administration’s apparent plan to let the torturers and their instigators off the hook. Thinking people everywhere (I’m one of them) have rushed to their keyboards to do their best to make sure the current government doesn’t get away with letting their predecessors get off scot free. MoveOn is on their case to make sure they don’t forget.  

With that amount of pressure, it’s not surprising that by Tuesday there were rumors that President Obama has already started to waffle. While he says he doesn’t want to go after the low-level CIA guys who were “only following orders” (no, of course he didn’t use that phrase), he didn’t rule out investigation and prosecution of their bosses in the Bush administration.  

In the air somewhere last week was an anecdote about Franklin Roosevelt and E. Phillip Randolph. Mrs. Roosevelt, an ardent early proponent of civil rights, was friends with Randolph, head of the pioneering Sleeping Car Porters union, and she set him up to have dinner with her husband to lobby for integration of the armed forces. As the story goes, the president said he supported integration but he couldn’t do it voluntarily. “You’ll have to make me,” he’s supposed to have said. It’s rumored that this story is a favorite of President Obama’s. So I guess we’ll have to make him do the right thing. 

How to do that? I queried my friend the law professor, who directed my attention to Justice Frank Murphy’s dissent in the Manila war crimes trial of Japanese general Yamashita. That trial allowed substantial departures from the laws of evidence and other due process safeguards, and Murphy said he feared future repercussions:  

“In my opinion, such a procedure is unworthy of the traditions of our people or of the immense sacrifices that they have made to advance the common ideals of mankind. The high feelings of the moment doubtless will be satisfied. But in the sober afterglow will come the realization of the boundless and dangerous implications of the procedure sanctioned today. No one in a position of command in an army, from sergeant to general, can escape those implications. Indeed, the fate of some future President of the United States and his chiefs of staff and military advisers may well have been sealed by this decision. But even more significant will be the hatred and ill-will growing out of the application of this unprecedented procedure. That has been the inevitable effect of every method of punishment disregarding the element of personal culpability. The effect in this instance, unfortunately, will be magnified infinitely, for here we are dealing with the rights of man on an international level. To subject an enemy belligerent to an unfair trial, to charge him with an unrecognized crime, or to vent on him our retributive emotions only antagonizes the enemy nation and hinders the reconciliation necessary to a peaceful world…. 

“War breeds atrocities. From the earliest conflicts of recorded history to the global struggles of modern times inhumanities, lust and pillage have been the inevitable by-products of man's resort to force and arms. Unfortunately, such despicable acts have a dangerous tendency to call forth primitive impulses of vengeance and retaliation among the victimized peoples. The satisfaction of such impulses in turn breeds resentment and fresh tension. Thus does the spiral of cruelty and hatred grow.” 

My teacher friend pointed out that nothing in the national horror about the World Trade Center bombing justified the Bush administration’s tossing prisoners into Guantanamo without due process or torturing them in violation of international law. He said that “there are two lessons here: we should not sacrifice procedure in dealing with our hateful adversaries; but we should still call them to task on substance. Yoo et al perpetrated substantive violations of international law, in our view. They should be given the fair opportunity to rebut that, but not be exonerated from the duty to be held accountable.”  

Who will bell the cat—who will hold them accountable? Is it the responsibility of Yoo’s two employers, the University of California and Chapman College, to remove him from his teaching positions because he’s a war criminal? Or should the U.S. Department of Justice appoint a special prosecutor to charge and convict Yoo and his boss, Jay Bybee, who’s now sitting on the bench of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco? Congress can impeach Bybee—on Sunday the New York Times said they should do so. Should Obama start the ball rolling now, or wait for Congress to investigate? There’s a whole menu of good choices, but someone needs to do something, and soon. 

My friend and neighbor Louis de Groot has been kept busy this month telling groups of young people about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, as Holocaust Awareness Day has gradually expanded into Holocaust Awareness month. He talks, still shaking his head in wonder, about the Dutch family who took him in when he was 13—“the same age as Anne Frank”—and hid him from the Nazis until the war was over.  

They didn’t have to do it, he says. They didn’t even think it was any big thing, just the right thing to do, and why shouldn’t they just do the right thing?  

I used to tell my kids that if there’s trouble and no one seems to be in charge, you are. We’re all in charge now of helping Barack Obama and the Congress, whom we elected, to do the right thing, to prosecute the officials who planned and perpetrated torture in our name. Since Obama has strongly hinted that he’s waiting for us to give him a push in the right direction, let’s just do it. No big deal, just do it.