Gaps in the Right's "banana republic" rhetoric

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

After years in which the executive branch of government did basically whatever the hell it wanted, whenever the hell it wanted to, recent news about U.S. torture of detainees has finally caused conservatives in the media to be alarmed about the prospect of the United States resembling a banana republic.

After years in which the executive branch of government did basically whatever the hell it wanted, whenever the hell it wanted to, recent news about U.S. torture of detainees has finally caused conservatives in the media to be alarmed about the prospect of the United States resembling a banana republic:

  • Glenn Beck: "[T]his is what banana republics do."
  • Mark Steyn: "[T]hat is the sort of thing that happens in banana republics."
  • Karl Rove: "[W]e're going to turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses. ... [T]hat might be fine in some little Latin American country that's run by, you know, the latest junta -- it may be the way that they do things in Chicago -- but that's not the way we do things here in America."
  • The Wall Street Journal editorial board: "This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power."
  • Bill Cunningham: "It makes us look ... like a banana republic."

But, incredible as it may seem, they are not upset about an administration that wiretapped American citizens, including a member of Congress. They aren't upset about a president using "signing statements" to ignore the clear intent of the very legislation he signed into law. They aren't even upset that the United States of America tortured people to make them confess a link between Iraq and 9-11 -- despite the fact that no such link existed -- in order to obtain a pretext to invade Iraq.

No, it doesn't bother them that America engaged in conduct recognized all over the world as torture. Instead, they are upset that we might investigate that torture. They are upset that those who authorized the inhumane treatment of detainees might be exposed and perhaps even punished for their actions. It isn't the crime that they mind, or even the cover-up -- it's the end of the cover-up.

Now, it's probably obvious that it takes a pretty warped view of reality to think that we must refuse to prosecute crimes by government officials in order to avoid becoming a Third World dictatorship. But that's just what Sean Hannity argues: "[W]e don't need to investigate past administrations like they do in ... these Third World, you know, dictatorships."

Of course, Sean Hannity doesn't really believe that. Sean Hannity doesn't want to investigate Bush administration torture, because Sean Hannity likes the Bush administration and likes torture. But he doesn't actually mind investigating past administrations, and he doesn't actually think that doing so would make America like a Third World dictatorship.

In fact, Sean Hannity argues in favor of investigations and prosecutions of past administrations -- as long as the past administrations are Democratic administrations.

In April of 2000, for example, when independent counsel Robert Ray (Ken Starr's successor) suggested that he might indict Bill Clinton when Clinton left office, Hannity said he thought that should happen. On January 21, 2001 -- the day after George W. Bush replaced Clinton in office -- Hannity reiterated that position. In March of 2001, Hannity argued that there should be a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton pardons, and that Clinton attorney general Janet Reno should be indicted.

So, Sean Hannity argues that we should investigate and prosecute past presidents and members of their administrations if they don't tell the truth about consensual affairs, and if they pardon someone who may not have deserved pardoning. But if we investigate torture, we're a Third World dictatorship.

Nor has Mark Steyn always thought that prosecuting a past president would make the U.S. a "banana republic," as he argued this week. With Clinton weeks away from leaving office, Steyn noted that Ray "has been re-interviewing Monica with a view to indicting Clinton after Jan. 20." Steyn didn't denounce the idea of indicting Clinton after he left office; instead, he expressed sadness that it was unlikely.

How about The Wall Street Journal editorial board? Has it been consistent in its view that past administrations shouldn't be investigated? Of course not. In the spring of 2001, for example, then-Journal editorial board member John Fund argued that the pardon scandal was "a classic scenario for the Justice Department appointing a special counsel."

The Journal's current outrage at the prospect of investigations of Bush administration wrongdoing isn't merely inconsistent, it perversely clings to the antiseptic phrase "policy disagreements" to describe differing views on whether or not torture is acceptable:

Policy disputes, often bitter, are the stuff of democratic politics. Elections settle those battles, at least for a time, and Mr. Obama's victory in November has given him the right to change policies on interrogations, Guantanamo, or anything on which he can muster enough support. But at least until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements. This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power.

Whether or not the federal government should shift education funding to vouchers is a policy disagreement. Nobody is talking about investigating policy disagreements. Torture is a crime. Illegal activity doesn't become legal simply because the president wants it to happen. Incidentally, according to Amnesty International, Peru, one of the countries the Journal singled out for derision, convicted former President Alberto Fujimori of torture, kidnapping, and enforced disappearances in the 1990s in an action that Amnesty International called "a crucial milestone in the struggle against impunity for human rights violations in Peru." And Argentina recently convicted members of the nation's military regime of "kidnapping, torture and disappearance" charges, according to Amnesty International. No wonder the Journal is worried we might follow their examples.

What really lends this a through-the-looking-glass quality, however, is that the conservative media who now denounce potential investigations of torture by portraying it as a mere policy disagreement previously sought investigations of a pardon. Whether or not you think all of Clinton's pardon decisions were correct, there is pretty much nobody who denies that he had the authority to make those decisions -- so investigating the pardons essentially was investigating a policy disagreement. Torture, on the other hand, is not a policy disagreement; it is a crime. Thus, the Journal's case against investigating the Bush administration better applies to investigations of the Clinton administration -- investigations the Journal supported.

That's what the conservative media consists of: partisans offering inconsistent, insincere, and nonsensical arguments on behalf of torture and the depraved thugs who authorized it.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Interrogation
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