Quote for Discussion: Facing our Failure

I, too, am glad-elated, really-that Bush’s absurd, colossally tragic reign is nearing an end. But that doesn’t change the fact that we failed. We all failed. Congress failed, the courts failed, and the American people failed. We have suffered through two terms of plainly illegitimate, nakedly contemptuous tyranny in a country that was designed to facilitate overthrowing tyrants, and we failed to do so.

I have no doubt that Obama, as disappointing as he will no doubt turn out to be, is a vast improvement over the past eight years, and may even be the best president of my lifetime-a dubious achievement at best. But it’s not enough to look forward and move on. If anything is to be learned from the Bush disaster, it’s important to look back, and to understand how terrible our failure has been.

As citizens, our expectations have fallen far and fast. When Nixon ignored a subpoena, the nation was outraged. Even Republican congressmen were vocally outraged, and Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment. When Nixon tried to fire a special prosecutor, his Attorney General resigned. Then his Deputy Attorney General resigned. When Reagan lied to the people about crimes far worse than Nixon’s, it was a scandal, but our expectations had already been dramatically lowered. There were hearings, but no impeachment. A few years later, a Republican congress abused the impeachment process as an instrument of prudery, in an act of supreme political perversion…

…All of this could have and should have been avoided, if the congress or the American people had any sense of duty, or responsibility, or really any sense at all. The fact that Bush, Cheney, and the rest will walk out of the White House and back into lives of decadent opulence and ballooning bank accounts is a shame, a damn shame of historic proportions. And the shame is ours. Bush is the worst outlaw ever to occupy the White House, and it is not enough that he simply leave. The message we have sent to power-mad, totalitarian presidents of the future is clear: Do whatever you want; we will do nothing to stop you. The press will do everything in its power to gloss over your worst excesses, and marginalize your critics, and when the public finally catches on, the press will simply ignore you in favor of optimistic coverage of your possible successors. At least that’s how it works for Republicans.

Bush lied about Iraq; it’s nothing if not clear at this point. And what the hell did we do about it? Bush failed miserably in New Orleans, dashing the image of Republican competence. But what did we do about it? Even now, as Bush’s economic team fools us into pouring an insane, gargantuan amount of money into the largest banks in the world, pulling a classic scare-and-switch tactic we should all be familiar with by now, nobody even murmurs about holding him accountable. As we all hold our breath and wait for Obama to take office, we allow the most craven, criminal administration in American history to keep right on pillaging our laws, our money, and our collective sense of decency right to the end. We, as a nation, are a miserable failure.

-Allan Uthman, The Great Shame

I’ve mostly kept to myself about the special prosecutor/truth commission/whatever that many others have written about, admirably and with passion.  Part of it is because I have little to add; these are serious people and they have good points, and clearly Bush and Cheney deserve it.  But another part of it is because I know it is pointless, there isn’t going to be anything like a special prosecutor, and I can’t get too energized about something I know isn’t going to happen.  And the biggest part is that I’m not the least bit concerned that justice will not be done.  Justice has already been done.

I’m not talking about the preposterous, show trial justice of the Nuremburg trials; it was a long time ago that I saw those for what they were – an attempt by those who did little to stop horrific crimes to shield themselves for the responsibility for their inaction.  And the Allies then didn’t deserve it, and neither do we now.

Despite my antipathy for the irresponsible, unaccountable, and generally useless United States government, I still know that it truly is a government of and by the people.  And it is a reflection of us, of you and me and everyone we know.  We are irresponsible, we are unaccountable, and we’re quite often useless.  And exhibit A is the last eight years of our history.

There is a basic truth we need to face: if on January 21st, Bush and Cheney were indicted for war crimes, and after a speedy trial, both were hung on the White House lawn, not one crime will have been prevented.  Every thing that they did, that legions of fellow Americans did on their orders, will be unchanged.  Even the notion that such a thing would have deterrent value is to my thinking, a joke.  The prospect of facing the gallows at Nuremberg has done nothing to prevent scores of like-minded people from committing genocide in the intervening period.  And key to this is because of the reality of what Nuremberg was: proof that in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the greatest crimes conceivable, the powers and “leaders” of the world will do nothing.  The President of the United States will ignore the plea of the passengers of the St. Louis even while they can see the lights of Miami out the portholes.

As a nation which pretended to care about the evil of a “leader who tortures his own people” and keeps rape rooms, we showed our true colors by spending years bogged down in semantic arguments and legalese as our leaders tortures other people (although our blithe lack of concern about the rampant and regular rape of the 1 in 100 of us who are in our own prisons ought to have predicted our reaction).  We showed more outrage when Miley Cyrus did that curtain ad.  We couldn’t even scrape up an American willing to be arrested for chucking their shoes at the President.  Faced with the inescapable reality for years that our leaders were taking our money and using it to torture hundreds and kill dozens of prisoners held without charges or legal rights, we, well, we made a Reese Witherspoon movie about it.

In a week or so, President Bush will walk out of the White House with the same shit-eating grin on his face that he walked in with.  And that is justice – that is what we deserve.  Like all those ordinary Germans, we knew what was going on, and we didn’t stop it.  Few of us lifted a finger; hardly any of us took even a slight risk to prevent those people from being tortured and murdered in our name.  The notion that some sort of legal retribution against the designers of our infamy will redeem us is as absurd as the notion that our new President will sagely repair our nation as a political Bagger Vance.  The tortured cannot be untortured; the murdered cannot be raised from the dead.

And no matter what we do in the future to pretend we weren’t a part of it, we’re still the nation of 300 million people too cowardly and disinterested to chuck a shoe.


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  1. You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you.

    -The Joker, “The Dark Knight”

    • Edger on January 12, 2009 at 11:20

    and I hope everybody reads it and comments on it, and because even though I disagree with your basic fatalistic premises here, I’m sure it’s an honest and well intentioned attempt at “facing reality”.

    The thing is that “reality” is very fluid and ever changing, and reality today is not reality yesterday or tomorrow. Also “we” – both your “we” and Uthman’s “we” is too sweeping a generalization lumping three hundred million people together as a homogeneous mass of people with no differentiation in thought, attitude, or intention that somehow need to be “redeemed” from the action of a few, nor are all people too cowardly too metaphorically to “chuck a shoe” – a cultural expression of disdain and insult. A sharp pen is needed here, not a wide paintbrush.

    If we accept the reasoning here we would be declaring that the justice system is a pointless exercise and may as well be done away with completely.

    No indicting and convicting of any criminal for a crime or crimes has ever in history erased the crimes committed.

    And Uthman’s writing is all the more reason for and was probably intended as motivation to pursue criminal charges against Bush, Cheney, et al, in my view. He says in the middle of the quote that “All of this could have and should have been avoided, if the congress or the American people had any sense of duty, or responsibility, or really any sense at all”.

    The quote is a recognition that “sense” is something many if not most people are capable of, and that prosecuting these criminals as an expression of that, not as a hopeless seeking for “redemption”, but rather a plea for people with sense to continue using it, in the face of all of those without it, and in the face of fatalism.

  2. …do indeed get the government they deserve.

    The quote and discourse rang true for me.

  3. of collective responsibility. It reminds me of years ago when a young woman I had worked with in a treatment program committed suicide. It was my first close experience with that. My overwhelming sense was that anyone who had known her well had to examine their relationship and interactions with her and wonder what we could have done differently. I didn’t blame myself – ultimately it was her choice. But I also couldn’t absolve myself of any responsibility either. It wasn’t an either/or, it was a both/and.

    I know that many times during these last 8 years I’ve asked myself what more I could do. I expect that was a haunting question for many of us. But individuals or even small groups of people doing things didn’t seem to have any impact. Perhaps the one person who did (although even she was ultimately not successful) was Cindy Sheehan. Her actions early on began a turning of the tide against the war. And rather than personally stopping Bushco – that’s what needed to happen. An awakening of the power of the people en mass to say STOP. Although, when given the opportunity to do so with an election, we finally did it.

    That’s a big part of why I’m supporting the petition drive. Sooner or later, if we are going to preserve this democracy, the people have to learn that we have the tools to have an impact on what our government does outside of just voting every few years. I do think that no matter what happens to Bushco, if we don’t learn that, another one will come along in a moment of vulnerability and we’ll get swept up in it all again.  

  4. … I’m glad you brought up Nuremberg, I agree with your assessment of that.  Yet it still was necessary, imo.  It brought out the facts of what happened through investigation and it allowed thousands of victims to testify and see those they accused exposed for what they were.

    My desire for a special prosecutor, which is really a euphemism for exposing the truth of precisely what happened under this regime, is not simply for some kind of justice (i.e., “hanging” Bush and Cheney on the lawn of the White House).  It is that I believe NO citizen of this nation should find it easy to turn away from what has been done by the US to folks both at home as well as all over the world.

    Aside from that, I do believe there is a deterrent in holding powerful people to the law.  I think that too many powerful criminals truly believe there will be no consequences to their actions.  And there are a great number of young citizens who are looking to them as role models, and believe they can do the same.

    I think it would be effective if those followers could see that there are indeed consequences to breaking the law and that being in power is no shield against those consequences.

    Finally, the petition does exactly what we are entitled to do as citizens which is to petition the government.  It is exercising our power and I think that is an entirely good thing in and of itself.

    • kj on January 12, 2009 at 16:52

    mostly fall on the side Jay presents, but there is a wedge.

    i keep thinking what so many of us said over these past eight years: “Not in my name.”

    will a citizen’s petition take that (our name) back?  that’s the part that engages me, although i’ve done nothing but sign and comment on the petition.

    i used to dream about billboards that showed pictures of torture with the words “This is the Bush Doctrine, this is not America.”  but it is/was “America.”  and somewhere along the line, a large statement needs to be made.

    i’m no intellectual. i think in big broad strokes. great big billboards; maybe that’s what this petition is all about. maybe it’s for our history. maybe its to announce there were some bad germans, after all.  some anti-american liberal who said “no, no, no.” “Not in my name, mutherfuckers.”  

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