Retribution vs. restoration and the body politic

Published 5:10 pm Saturday, May 2, 2009

I sat next to Ted Stevens at a Washington dinner years ago and found him unpleasant in a raspy, cartoonish way, but I was happy to see his conviction thrown out. A muddy case, a friend doing work on the senator’s house perhaps in exchange for favors in Washington, and I say, have mercy. Let him go fishing in the cold, clear rivers of Alaska and examine his conscience, as we all do in our better hours, and let us all move on to something more promising.

I feel similarly about the Bush people whom some Democrats want to charge with war crimes. The widespread waterboarding and other acts of torture carried out in secret CIA prisons are no small matter. The free play of sadism on the helpless in the name of national service is not to be ignored. What’s needed is a fair and thorough congressional investigation. Subpoena witnesses and lay the whole wretched business out on the public record. Look into the heart of darkness and meditate on it. But don’t round up a few symbolic suspects and throw the book at them and let all the others go free. Which is what would happen if we launch a criminal prosecution.

What’s needed here is not punishment, but truth. When I hear Democrats talk about “holding them responsible,” I smell the sour righteousness of the victorious lording it over the vanquished. The guy they really want to put on trial is the old brush-cutter of Crawford, or else the old grouse hunter of Wyoming. They’re the guys who signed off on those memos authorizing torture. The buck stopped at their desks.

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Holding the Bush administration responsible for torture would give us some high political drama that would feed the media goat for the next two years and also sap the body politic. The health care system would go unfixed, schools would crumble, basic public services would deteriorate, all so that the left could have at the right.

I am an old museum-quality northern liberal and I know something about the righteousness of my confreres. I’ve been with old lefty friends who can get emotional about the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the innocent men railroaded to the gallows, but dear hearts, it happened in 1886. Let’s move on.

Retribution is not smart politics. That’s part of what killed Rudy Giuliani’s run for president, the voters’ sense that he was possessed of a cruel urge to pay back old debts. He was meaner than we want a president to be. I agree with Senator McCain when he says, “We need to put this behind us, we need to move forward.”

Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city — I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things — and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security.

As Orwell said, “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I think the American electorate knew who they re-elected in 2004. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform, they ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes.

Rather than square off in a bloody battle over war crimes, let’s return decent train service to the Midwest and test out the German maglev (magnetic levitation) system — the 360 mph trains — and connect Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City. Let’s restore education to the public schools so that our kids get a chance to hear Mozart and learn French.

I’m in Washington today for the Poetry Out Loud program, run by the National Endowment for the Arts. Your tax dollars spent to bring 53 high school kids (out of 300,000 who competed for the honor) to recite poetry (Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot, Billy Collins), the winner to get a $20,000 scholarship.

It’s a beautiful event. Special Olympics for English majors. I would forgo the pleasures of tormenting a few malefactors for the rightness of hearing a kid from Newark stand up and give an impassioned recitation of “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”

Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, “Liberty” (Viking).