Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Leahy's Legacy: To Confront the Bush Legacy

During the final months of his administration, George W. Bush exhibited a "surge" of interest in the legacy of his Administration. However, as I observed at the time, the fruits of that interest turned out to be little more than that same distorted view of reality that had been the real legacy of his eight years in office. If Bush was only going to provide simplistic formulas as a substitute for serious reflection, we had to wonder how long it would take for more genuine reflection; and, when that time came (assuming it would come at all), would there still be memories fresh enough to sustain the reflection?

Barack Obama has tried to distance himself from a scrupulous review of Bush Administration practices, taking a public stance that looking forward is more important than looking backwards. Since I continue to subscribe to the conviction that history can always inform how we think about and act in the present, I do not agree with Obama's position: We can only look forward through "knowledge lenses" that are shaped by the understanding we gain through looking backwards. I thus applaud the desire of Senator Patrick Leahy, as reported last night on Al Jazeera English, to review the last eight years critically but dispassionately as a source of lessons to be learned:

The US Senate Judicial Committee is to discuss the possibility of creating a commission to investigate alleged abuses of power during the administration of George Bush, the former US president.

The proposed commission would examine allegations of torture, abuse of power, illegal wiretapping and extraordinary rendition of terror suspects.

The meeting follows a proposal by Patrick Leahy, a senator for Vermont and chairman of the committee, to examine US actions as part of the country's so-called war on terror.

While I have frequently suggested that ours is a culture with little interest in history, it appears that a fair amount of the American public is sympathetic with Leahy's effort:

A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted earlier in February found that 62 per cent of US citizens favour either a criminal investigation or an independent panel to look into allegations of torture.

Indeed, I have been struck how often the word "criminal" and many of its variants have emerged in man-on-the-street interviews showing up on television news (not that such interviews ever constitute a representative statistical sample). Perhaps, whatever our feelings about history may be, we just all want to be Tom Cruise standing up to the Bush Administration's collective embodiment of Jack Nicholson, shouting in our faces, "You can't handle the truth!" (It is interesting, however, to note that these days "Call me Karl" Rove has been trying to take a more sugar-coated approach to addressing critics of the Bush Administration.) Whether or not Leahy will get his wish remains to be seen, particularly when we get down into such details (where the Devil resides) as "the power to subpoena witnesses and possibly grant immunity for officials who testify truthfully." Personally, though, I feel that any present serious effort to move forward can only take place once we have been fully informed about what we see when we look back on the last eight years.

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