And every time, she does it to me again.
This time — channeling either Patsy Cline or Nancy Sinatra — in response to the release of the administrations torture memos and other documents, Peggy Noonan wants to “just keep walking.”
While most of the nonsense came from the usual suspects (Rove, Armey, Kristol), perhaps the most striking argument came from Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter turned Wall Street Journal columnist.
“Sometimes in life you want to just keep walking,” Noonan said, adding, “Sometimes, I think, just keep walking…. Some of life just has to be mysterious.”
It was, to be sure, one of the more ridiculous arguments of the debate. Noonan wasn’t prepared to defend the Bush administration’s abuses, but she suggested accountability is necessarily a bad idea because … well, apparently it has something to do with walking.
Where to begin?
(I should probably just leave alone George Will’s protestations that the memos are based on legal theories about the concept of the “unitary executive,” supported by “some very intelligent people.” George, those “very intelligent people” are wrong. The president wanting something to be legal, and saying its legal — or getting his lawyers to make it legal, via memo — isn’t sufficient to make it legal, let alone right.)
On some level, I understand where Peggy is coming from. Were I a conservative with a well-documented record of supporting the Bush administration’s policies, I’d want desperately for people not look at the memos and other records being released. Talk of truth commissions and prosecutions would make me sick to my stomach.
I also understand wanting desperately not to look at what one has done or what has been done in one’s name. It’s a desire that stems from realizing that once you allow yourself to look and to know, you become responsible for that knowledge, responsible for doing something about it, and responsible for changing how you are in the world — if, that is, you want to avoid doing the same thing again and again.
The first rule of a dysfunctional family, after all is “don’t talk.” Whatever is wrong, whatever the problem is, whoever had one or is doing what to whom, whoever is violating or abusing whom, etc., the first rule is still “don’t talk.”
If you’ve invaded a country, rounded up a bunch of people — many of whom happen to be innocent of anything remotely resembling terrorism, and some of whom are children — held them for years without charging them, denied them counsel, and subjected them to interrogation techniques that violate not just the Geneva conventions but also a basic sense of human dignity…”don’t talk.” Don’t talk about it. Certainly don’t release the written-in-black-and-white evidence. And absolutely don’t hold those responsible for the policies that made it all possible accountable for their actions.
Just keep walking.
I understand it on a different level, as well.
In Alcoholics Anonymous and many other recovery programs, the Twelve Steps are recommended to those struggling with addiction as a path to recovery. They are not easy steps, though the first few just require the addict to work on recognizing the he/she has a problem and deciding to do something about it.
But that’s just the beginning of the work that needs to be done. By the time we get to the fourth step, there’s an overwhelming temptation to either put on the breaks find a way to get around it and “just keep walking,” because we have to do something that people neck-deep in dysfunction don’t want to do if we can help it: make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
It goes on. We then have to admit to ourselves and someone else, “the exact nature of our wrongs.” And, depending upon how deep we waded into dysfunction, the “exact nature of our wrongs” may be so bad that we haven’t looked at it head on, let alone shown it to someone else.
But, in those programs, it’s the only way to recovery because in the process we make ourselves accountable. In making that searching and fearless moral inventory, we reclaim our values and take an honest look at the distance between we’ve become and what we want to be or what we want to believe we are. We become accountable to ourselves. In sharing that inventory with one other person, through them we become accountable to others. We’ve reaffirmed our values and revealed how far we’ve strayed from them. Now we can hold ourselves accountable for upholding those values from here on out. And others can old us accountable, too.
Then there’s justice, in the form of making a list of all those we have harmed, and making amends where possible, except when to do so would cause further harm. We’ve made our “searching and fearless moral inventory,” shared it, and then moved forward to right the wrongs of the past where possible.
This is an ongoing process.
It’s not easy, and there are no short cuts. We can’t simply “get over” what’s often years or even a lifetime of dysfunction and addiction, and “just keep walking” to recovery. If we really want change — if we want to stop doing what’s harmful to us and to others — there’s no way “over it.” There’s only through it. Getting through it is a difficult, often uncomfortable, but necessary process, if we want change.
As with the problems that lead people into recovery programs, the discussion around torture and accountability reminds me of the chorus of a song I grew up hearing in church.
So high you can’t get over it,
So low you can’t get under it,
So wide you can’t get around it,
You must come in at the door.
In the first days of the Obama administration, starting with the order to close Guantanamo Bay, America began walking towards and “kept walking” towards that door. In recent ACLU press release points to polls showing that two thirds of Americans want investigations into the use of torture by the Bush administration, and 41% support criminal prosecutions.
And the Obama administration has moved close to that door. It wasn’t that long ago that Obama made a statement similar to Noonan’s; one that left me too disappointed to address at the time.
“My orientation’s going to be to move forward,” Obama said. The attorney general has to stay above politics and “uphold the Constitution,” Obama added, but his administration will focus on “getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”
But now I believe that the president and those working with him are more than smart enough to know that releasing this information would be enough to spark outrage in many Americans, and thus made it harder for the administration to back away from prosecutions, if investigations reveal justification for prosecutions.
The more Americans know, hopefully, the more the administration will be pressured to act. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he will enforce the law and pursue any wrongdoing related to interrogation policies that encouraged and enabled torture.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday he will not allow criminalization of policy differences over CIA interrogations, but will pursue any wrongdoing.
Critics of interrogation methods such as waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — used by the CIA on some terrorism suspects are calling for a full investigation and possible prosecution of U.S. officials responsible for the interrogation policies developed by the Bush administration.
Some Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of seeking to prosecute over policy differences.
“I will not permit the criminalization of policy differences. However, it is my responsibility as the attorney general to enforce the law,” Holder told a congressional hearing. “If I see wrongdoing, I will pursue it to the full extent of the law.”
As well he should. There are huge implications and consequences if we follow Noonan’s advice to “keep walking.” (There’s a parallel in the calls for a grand inquest on the financial crisis and movement in the House and Senate towards forming panels to investigate the causes of the current crisis, but that’s another topic for another post.)
If we expose evidence of injustice without then dispensing justice, we essentially give our approval to those unjust acts. No, our words of condemnation are not enough. No, public scorn is not enough.
Once we know, we have to act. And we have to know, if we are to be anything close to the country we always thought we were.
It is not enough to expose everything to sunlight, and name names. This is were courage is required. Noonan wants to keep the blinders on and “keep walking” precisely because once we have knowledge you become responsible for that knowledge, we become responsible for acting on that knowledge.
We cannot reveal evidence of criminal policies and acts, without then holding the responsible parties accountable. We cannot expose injustice and then withhold justice. We cannot know of injustice and then withhold justice.
At least, we cannot do so and continue to be the country we have always thought we were or say that we want to be.
I wrote earlier that on November 4th we didn’t just chose a president, we chose the kind of country we want to be.
We are now just starting to walk towards it. This is just one step. A necessary one, albeit painful and difficult. That’s because what we’re walking towards, those of us who are willing, requires us to look at the worst we’ve done on the way to becoming better that we were. It’s a necessary stop on the way to what we will be: a country much closer to living its values.
Peggy Noonan can “can just keep walking.” But the country can’t afford to join her on that walk to nowhere.