We’re making real progress on the torture front; hardly anyone bothers with the canard that we didn’t torture – now apologists only argue it was necessary and justified. For these apologists, it’s not a question of principle, but of practicality.
Practical or not – and many in the intelligence-gathering community say torture doesn't work – the fact remains, we have prosecuted people for these acts.
President Obama is taking a lot of heat for his reluctance to prosecute those who engaged in or authorized torture. Many are surprised at his actions because they are idealists who imagined he was an idealist as well. But for all his high-blown rhetoric, anyone who paid attention to his past actions ought to be aware he is less a man of principle than a man of practicality.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some would argue that over the last eight years, we suffered from too much principle and a lack of practicality. Staying the course is hardly wise or admirable when you’re headed over a cliff. Or as Emerson put it, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Whatever one thinks of Obama, it’s fair to say his is not a small mind. The quality of his mind shines through in his book The Audacity of Hope. In it, he reveals himself to be a realist, though a generally optimistic one, and an opportunist, though not necessarily a selfish one. Thus his actions as President have so far been fairly predictable – if sometimes unsatisfying to those who imagined him an idealist.
Obama has apparently decided to concentrate on achieving his far-reaching social agenda, rather than expend political capital on high-profile prosecutions of men who brazenly set themselves above the law. Ironically, these same men are guilty of trying to undo seventy years of social progress – which is not in and of itself a crime. But in the process, they corrupted even the Department of Justice – which certainly is a crime, another crime for which no one has been held accountable.
With his failure to prosecute these men, Obama has shown an uncharacteristic lack of foresight and judgment. By not re-establishing the rule of law, he subverts his own aims, for in the long run, such men may once again assume power and undo whatever he manages to accomplish in 4-8 years. He should realize that, because that is exactly what he is in the process of doing – or more correctly – undoing, as in undoing most of the previous administration’s flawed policies.
The argument for bi-partisanship and compromise sounds good to many who’ve grown weary of the bitter bile of the politics of division that were taken to an illogical extreme by Cheney and Rove. But does history have anything to teach us about compromising on that which ought to be beyond compromise?
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America was founded on the bold claim that "all men are created equal", yet the very Constitution that legally established this nation put the lie to that claim. The notorious “three-fifths rule” written into the law of the land held that some men were no better than livestock.
The “that was then and people didn’t know better” apologists can save their defense of the Founders. Arguments about the morality of slavery had been going on for centuries. Queen Isabella rebuked Columbus for bringing her slaves from the New World. King Carlos II of Spain abolished slavery in the New World in 1693. Yes, 1693 – a historical fact that is likely still not taught in many, if not most, high school history classes.
Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken abolitionist. Even Jefferson called the slave trade “execrable commerce” in his version of the Declaration of Independence. So how did we end up legalizing slavery in our Constitution? The plain truth is some of the most revered of our Founders sacrificed their principles to practicality. The plain truth is the founders knew slavery was wrong, but they also knew it was profitable.
Indeed, slavery was so profitable some claim that confronting the issue in 1789 would have meant there would have been no United States of America. If so, then perhaps we did not deserve our own freedom: One cannot reasonably or morally claim all men are created equal while denying equality to others.
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There ought to be little debate the Founders failure to confront slavery led to a series of compromises that satisfied no one and ultimately led to the tragedy of the Civil War. In fact, a glance at the present day political map suggests this country is still bitterly divided along those lines. Few these days may be so overtly racist as to defend slavery, but the recent presidential campaign suggests those festering wounds are still very much with us.
Are their lessons to be drawn from this sad and sorry failure to confront a divisive issue head on? Will history repeat itself in the years to come because principle took a back seat to practicality?
We shall see, perhaps sooner than any of us would wish.
©2009 Tom Cordle
Note: Several others have posts on this subjectl: