When Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu said last week that the ex-leaders of the U.S. and U.K. should be made to “answer for their actions” in attacking Iraq on the basis of lies, Western savants and pundits greeted the remarks from the retired archbishop of South Africa with an all-too-familiar knowing, dismissive shrug.
It was the same condescending shrug with which U.S. media dismissed the undisputed documentary evidence in the Downing Street Minutes of July 23, 2002, clearly showing that the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” plan to attack Iraq.
But in his op-ed of Sept. 2 in London’s Observer, Tutu pulled no punches: “Those responsible for this suffering and loss of life [in Iraq] should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.”
Tutu noted that shortly before George W. Bush and Tony Blair ordered the invasion of Iraq, he called the White House urging that the U.N. inspectors be given more time to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice “demurred, saying there was too much risk and the President would not postpone [the attack] any longer.”
Mincing few words about the fraudulent “justification” for the attack, Tutu wrote, “The then-leaders of the US and UK fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies. … They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand – with the spectre of [new conflicts in] Syria and Iran before us. …
Tutu continued, “If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?”
What leaped to mind is the famous (but largely unobserved) warning of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1928 – a strong admonition with such sad relevance today:
“The government is the potent omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that the end justifies the means — to declare that the government may commit crimes — would bring terrible retribution.”
Before this century, it was not unknown for the U.S. government to break the law. What distinguishes the first dozen years of the 21st Century is Washington’s utter disregard for law – both national and international – and its backsliding into the law of the jungle, where might makes right.
Nowhere is this clearer than in reluctance of the Obama administration to hold practitioners of the most flagrant abuses – torture, for example – to account. As Marjorie Cohn has pointed out, Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing on Aug. 31 the closure of the last two criminal investigations of deaths apparently from CIA torture, Holder conferred amnesty on countless officials, lawyers and interrogators who set and carried out the policy of cruel treatment.
Holder’s announcement that the Justice Department will not prosecute CIA officials responsible for the deaths of detainee Gul Rahman in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan in 2002 and Manadel al-Jamadi in Iraq in 2003 is tantamount to giving CIA operatives license to torture and kill with impunity.
Rahman froze to death after being beaten, stripped and shackled to a concrete wall at the CIA’s infamous “Salt Pit.” A U.S. military autopsy ruled al-Jamadi’s death a homicide. This came as no surprise to the millions who saw the photo of his beaten, lifeless body packed in ice and wrapped in plastic, lying on the ground at Abu Ghraib.
These two cases had been the only ones still open, after President Barack Obama decided not to prosecute other CIA officials involved in abusing detainees. Applying a novel approach to this heinous chapter, the President insisted on not “laying blame for the past” but “instead come together on behalf of our common future.”
One of the most powerful pressures intimidating Obama was the vocal opposition of seven previous CIA directors, supported by a sympathetic “mainstream” media, to the very thought of holding CIA officials accountable for torture and other abuses. Although it has been long since forgotten, Obama and Holder initially gave some lip service to the concept of no one being above the law.