Peace, Justice, and Obama

Sta. Ana is the Coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the January 26, 2009 edition of the Business World, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

It was an extraordinary, jubilant day for America and the rest of the world. Two million people attended Barack Obama’s inaugural. Millions more from across the globe followed the investiture via television or internet.

For the 21st century youth, Obama’s victory is sexy, poetic, and magical. For the flower generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Obama’s accession is a dream come true.  Obama, son of a “peacenik,” symbolizes the hope of “giving peace a chance.” The investiture “was a day truly worth remembering and celebrating for it truly gives PEACE a chance.” Those were the words of our friend from D.C., Sergy Floro, an economics professor at American University.

Giving peace a chance will not be easy.  Giving peace a chance means waging a legal and political war against the few who broke peace, committed aggression, and unhinged US democracy and security.

Osama Bin Laden and terrorism were supposed to be America’s and the world’s most dangerous enemy. But George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their band of neoconservatives became the best recruiters for terrorist causes.  Bush and company created a bigger mess that damaged US institutions and brought shame to the US. Their hubris, their dogma, their self-righteousness, not to forget their pursuit of vested interests—led them to conduct an illegal war that isolated the US and ironically led to more terror.

The Bush administration used terror to fight terror. But by wantonly violating, human rights, due process, and the rule of law, Bush and company sullied the values that made the US a great nation. Those who suffered abuses included ordinary folks, the plain US citizens as well, whose right to privacy was violated by Bush’s security order.

The Guantanamo prison symbolizes the folly, hypocrisy, and egregiousness of Bush’s war.   What happened in Guantanamo cannot be forgotten:  the scene of hooded and chained terrorist suspects deprived of their legal rights, the cries from torture, the hunger strikes, and detainees committing suicide.  Guantanamo is a monument of abomination and ignobility.

And so, it was very auspicious and symbolic that one of Obama’s first official acts was to release a draft of an executive order to shut the Guanatanamo prison within the year.  Closing Guantanamo repudiates the Bush doctrine.

It boosts our friend Sergy’s hope, our collective hope, that Obama will give peace a chance.

How to protect human rights or constitutional rights without weakening homeland and global security is not an issue at all.  Obama’s position is unequivocal.  In his inaugural address, he eloquently said: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers—drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

The differences between Bush and Obama with respect to human rights are not simply policy differences.  In conducting the war against terror, Bush and his executors are accused of violating criminal laws; they therefore should stand trial and be made accountable.

Let us be reminded, too, that the Bush administration’s transgressions were not just related to Guantanamo.  As Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column (16 January 2009), “It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security.  The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.”

The closure of the Guantanamo prison is the first necessary step. Regardless of the “policy differences,” the next step is to demand accountability from those who violated laws and committed crimes.  This is but expected from a presidency that that has committed itself to “openness, transparency, and the rule of law.”

We nevertheless have to remain vigilant.

Our resident humorist, Manuel Buencamino, is not humored by what he detects as a concerted action of some quarters, even among those who claim to be Obama’s supporters, to spare Bush and his men from accountability. They tried to misrepresent Obama’s statement about needing “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Their call is to forget the past and for us to move on.  Yet, they conveniently omit quoting Obama’s words that “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law.”

Let’s sample the backward thinking that says ‘Let’s move on.”  The first is a New York Times opinion piece (10 January 2009) written by Harvard law professor Charles Fried.  The second is the conversation in a radio talk-show between host Don Imus and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and author who won a Pulitzer prize.

Here is a controversial passage from Fried’s article:

“There are those who will press for criminal prosecutions, but this should be resisted.

“It is a hallmark of a sane and moderate society that when it changes leaders and regimes, those left behind should be abandoned to the judgment of history. It is in savage societies that the defeat of a ruling faction entails its humiliation, exile and murder.”

To defend such shaky proposition, Fried would make a distinction between the actions of despots like Stalin and Hitler on the one hand and Bush’s political action   He wrote:

“If you cannot see the difference between Hitler and Dick Cheney, between Stalin and Donald Rumsfeld, between Mao and Alberto Gonzales, there may be no point in our talking. It is not just a difference of scale, but our leaders were defending their country and people — albeit with an insufficient sense of moral restraint — against a terrifying threat by ruthless attackers with no sense of moral restraint at all.”

And here’s a part of the transcript of the conversation between Imus and Goodwin (13 January 2009):

Imus: “Kind of interesting—let me clear my throat—kind of interesting that [Obama]
has already expressed a reluctance to dismantle or even investigate some of these Bush
programs—domestic eavesdropping, detainee treatment—says he’s going to close
Guantanamo—I guess my point is he is not demonstrating himself to be the wild eyed
crazed radical that he was portrayed as by some folks, and more importantly in my view
he’s not going to waste a bunch of time that doesn’t make any sense when the wheels
have come off the world and he’s got all those problems to solve, which you just talked
about.”

Goodwin: “You’re absolutely right, Don. I mean, I think—you know what it shows is I
don’t think this man has a vindictive bone in his body, which is a good thing. I mean you
know obviously you’d want to stop whatever it is Bush was doing that you disagreed with, as you were just saying Guantanamo—but you don’t have enough time and energy and imagination and focus right now to look backward, you have to go forward. In fact that was one of the great strengths that Abraham Lincoln had. You know he said you can’t allow these past hurts to fester within you, or it poisons a past of you.  So think about what would happen if we get a whole bunch of hearings going on in the Congress and the newspapers are filled with looking back in a negative way about what Bush did. That’s not going to help us at this moment in time when you’ve got these crises at home and these crises abroad. So you decide you’re going to stop doing what you don’t want to do that he did, but you don’t want to take the imagination of the people and the energies and the focus away from the future.”

Note that Fried and Goodwin are singing the same tune.

Here is a part of Buencamino’s retort to the Fried article: “What sort of yardstick does one use to distinguish someone with an insufficient sense of moral restraint from someone with no sense of moral restraint?”

The fact is the Bush administration violated the law, regardless of the scale. The atrocities and savagery committed at Guantanamo and elsewhere were not simply political blunders; they were crimes that a decent, civilized society will not tolerate.  Decent people do not want to “humiliate or murder” Bush and company.  The demand is for justice and accountability to prevail.

Another colleague, Mike Alba, eloquently summarizes the sentiments of people, American and non-American citizens, who adhere to the rule of law and the sanctity of rights: “Not holding the Bush administration to account opens the door to future administrations to drop any moral restraints. It also does not give Americans the opportunity to cleanse themselves of sins committed by the Bush administration in their name. Ultimately, if no rendering is done, America will be judged by history to be a less decent society.”

We Filipinos should likewise be concerned over Bush’s accountability. The tragedy of undermining US democracy under the Bush administration is happening in the Philippines. Mrs. Arroyo and party are likewise concerned.  Here’s the last word from Buencamino: “Gloria’s people should be taking notes and committing these arguments to heart just in case….”

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