(updated below - Update II - Update III)
While fiercely loyal establishment spokespeople such as The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus continue to insist that prosecutions are only appropriate for common criminals ("someone breaking into your house") but not our glorious political leaders when they break the law (by, say, systematically torturing people), the Bush administration has righteously decided that torture is such a grotesque and intolerable crime that political leaders who order it simply must be punished in American courts to the fullest extent of the law . . . . if they're from Liberia:
MIAMI (AP) -- U.S. prosecutors want a Miami judge to sentence the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to 147 years in prison for torturing people when he was chief of a brutal paramilitary unit during his father's reign.
Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr. is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 9 by U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga. His conviction was the first use of a 1994 law allowing prosecution in the U.S. for acts of torture committed overseas.
Even in the U.S., it's hard to believe that federal prosecutors who work for the Bush DOJ were able to convey the following words with a straight face:
A recent Justice Department court filing describes torture - which the U.S. has been accused of in the war on terror - as a "flagrant and pernicious abuse of power and authority" that warrants severe punishment of Taylor.
"It undermines respect for and trust in authority, government and a rule of law," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Heck Miller in last week's filing. "The gravity of the offense of torture is beyond dispute."
The AP article which reported on these proceedings, by Curt Anderson, is almost as illustrative an exhibit of how our country operates as the trial itself is. Marvel at this passage:
Emmanuel had argued in previous court papers that he was being unfairly prosecuted for acts similar to those committed by U.S. personnel in Iraq and elsewhere.
The administration of President George W. Bush has been criticized by some around the world and in Congress for using aggressive interrogation techniques. Justice Department memos were seen as providing legal underpinnings for some of the techniques.
However, administration officials have blamed abuses at places such as Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison on a small number of soldiers or agents and insisted there has been no systematic mistreatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan or the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Acts which, when ordered by Liberians, are "criminal torture" meriting life imprisonment magically become, when ordered by Americans, mere "aggressive interrogation techniques." And while not all of the "techniques" used by the Liberians were authorized by Bush officials ("hot clothes irons" and "biting ants shoveled onto people's bodies"), many of the authorized American techniques are classic torture tactics and resulted in the deaths of many detainees and the total insanity of many more.
Worse, AP -- with canine-like subservience -- mindlessly recites the Bush administration's excuses (Abu Ghraib was due to low-level rogue bad apples and "there has been no systematic mistreatment of detainees") without even mentioning the ample evidence proving how false those government claims are. That's standard American "journalism" for you: "Our Government says X, and even if it's false and even if it's intensely disputed, we'll just leave it at that." Doing anything more -- as NBC News' David Gregory pointed out -- is "not their role."
There's something beautifully illustrative about this torture prosecution. Apparently, it's not just appropriate, but necessary and urgent, for American courts to be used to prosecute the leaders of small African nations who order torture exclusively in their own land. Doing that is necessary to uphold what the Bush DOJ calls "respect for and trust in authority, government and a rule of law."
But -- say Bush loyalists and our pliant political class in unison -- the one thing that we cannot tolerate is for American courts to be used to impose accountability on American leaders who authorized illegal torture. And, of course, the only thing worse than doing that would be to subject them to prosecution by another country or, creepier still, an international tribunal. That would be an intolerable infringement of our sovereignty, we say as we prosecute the son of Liberia's President for acts he undertook exclusively inside Liberia.
In Liberia, the Taylor regime, for many years, was genuinely threatened by numerous rebels and revolutionary factions -- ones supported by other countries -- seeking to overthrow the Liberian government. The torture which Taylor, Jr. was accused of ordering occurred during a brutal civil war.
Liberia undoubtedly has its own Jack Goldsmiths and Stuart Taylors who insist that the torture which the Taylors ordered -- though perhaps "crossing a line or two" -- was done for the Good and Safety of the Liberian People and to defend the Government against these foreign and domestic threats. The Taylors undoubtedly have their loyalists who echo our own Cass Sunsteins and Ruth Marcuses, urging that it would be so much better for the country if everyone just let bygones be bygones and looked to the pretty future and the challenges Liberians face and not get distracted by litigating the unpleasant and partisan fights of the past.
But, like most of the alleged principles to which our political elite professes allegiance, America and its leaders are entitled to a different set of standards and better treatment. Thus, Charles Taylor belongs at the Hague, being prosecuted as a war criminal. His son belongs in an American criminal court being prosecuted by the Bush DOJ for torture. And George Bush and Dick Cheney belong on their "ranches," enjoying full-scale immunity for the crimes they committed and a rich and comfortable retirement, treated as the esteemed and well-intentioned (even if sometimes misguided) dignitaries that they are. Virtually the only people in the world who fail to recognize this self-evident, ludicrous and disgusting hypocrisy are America's political and media elites and those who are misled by them.
UPDATE: Michael Mukasey, who refuses even to say whether waterboarding is torture and has repeatedly acted to protect Bush officials from prosecution, appeared two weeks ago at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and actually spoke these words (h/t sysprog):
It serves as a daily reminder to the leaders of the free world, and to the many visitors to our nation’s capital, that law without conscience is no guarantee of freedom; that even the seemingly most advanced of nations can be led down the path of evil; and that we must confront horror with action and vigilance, not lethargy and cowardice. . . .
Just as the Museum has focused on present-day mass killings such as those in Rwanda or Darfur, we at the Department are doing what we can to ensure that those responsible for such atrocities are brought to justice. We have provided support to the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and to the Iraqi High Tribunal. And where we can, we are bringing our own cases. Both the Office of Special Investigations and the Domestic Security Section – parts of the Department’s Criminal Division – are pursuing cases against perpetrators of those international atrocities who find their way into our country.
The most prominent example of those efforts is the recent conviction of Chuckie Taylor Jr., the son of the former President of Liberia, who was convicted of torturing his countrymen. His conviction – the first in history under our criminal anti-torture statute – provides a measure of justice to those who were victimized by his reprehensible acts, and it sends a powerful message to human rights violators around the world that, when we can, we will hold them accountable for their crimes.
Mukasey actually had the audacity to approvingly quote from Robert Jackson's addresses to the Nuremberg Trials, at which this central proposition of Western justice -- now explicitly renounced by America's political and media establishment -- was ostensibly established:
The common sense of mankind demands that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power . . . .
Unsurprisingly, Mukasey neglected to mention that Jackson, in his opening remarks to the tribunal, called "aggressive war" the "greatest menace of our times," and in his summation, Jackson observed that "the plot for aggressive wars" is "the central crime in this pattern of crimes, the kingpin which holds them all together."
The glaring contradictions in Mukasey's words are too self-evident to warrant explanation. Ponder, instead, the opinion which Mukasey -- by uttering such brazen statements in public and knowing he can do with impunity -- is implicitly expressing about how broken is our establishment media and how distorted is our political discourse.
UPDATE II: Alberto Gonzales gave a painfully self-pitying interview to The Wall St. Journal this week and announced that the real victims aren't the detainees who were tortured in our secret and not-so-secret prison camps, nor the millions of dead or displaced Iraqis, nor the Americans whose communications were illegally spied upon without warrants. No, the Real Victims of the last eight years are Bush officials like him who face criticism for what they did:
I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror.
Here we find the predominant -- virtually unanimous -- Beltway mentality: when high American officials break our laws, it's nothing more than "formulating policies that people disagree with." Gonzales cried out: "What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?" The answers are obvious to anyone paying even minimal attention. Steve Benen points out just some of them here.
UPDATE III: I have a year-end piece for Salon up today -- here -- reviewing 2008 from the perspective of the Constitution and civil liberties.