Obama endorses the culture of impunity

The latest Obama disappointment is that he's not interested in investigating the crimes committed by the Cheney administration in torturing people and violating the civil liberties of US citizens. Congressional Democrats say they are more interested in enforcing the law, but given their generally spineless performance during the last eight years, I'm not holding my breath. Rule-of-law conservatives, who can marshal unlimited outrage over the similar crimes of official enemies and even over petty street crime, are nowhere to be seen.

Obama explained that violations of the law under Cheney should not be prosecuted because he believes “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” The nation's prisoners - who constitute one-fourth of the world's total and are mostly in jail for nonviolent offenses - may be disappointed to learn that their less significant crimes do not qualify for such treatment. Philosophers of justice, however, may wish to further develop this new theory that crimes committed in the past need not be prosecuted.

More to the point, Obama explained that he has “to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” He did not explain why we would want "extraordinarily talented" torturers to remain at the CIA.

In abandoning his campaign rhetoric, Obama has signaled his complete acceptance of the culture of impunity that surrounds the country's leaders. Some "extreme left-wing" Democrats who take human rights more seriously are willing to tear at the edges of this culture, but even they dare not raise the most monstrous crimes: initiating wars of aggression and extensive violations of the laws of war.

These acts are not even thinkable as crimes as long as the nationalist discourse of American righteousness remains intact. The task of human rights campaigners and progressives must not be limited to the legalistic demand of prosecuting those who break the law. It must extend to a radical critique of America's place in the world and to changing the culture of popular nationalism that has sustained the imperial agenda of presidents both Democrat and Republican for the last century and more.

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