I'm expecting Barack Obama's Inauguration a week from Tuesday to be a real moment of celebration for most people. And I do mean most people, not just most Americans.
And I expect for most Americans there will be a sense that a renewal of democracy is taking place.
A feeling not entirely unlike those in the celebration depicted in the video below of the 1983 Inauguration of human rights advocate Raúl Alfonsín as President of Argentina, restoring democracy after seven years of grim military dictatorship.
No, the Cheney-Bush administration didn't rule domestically as a dictatorship. But the torture policy, the claim that the President on his own authority can declare American citizens "unlawful combatants" without judicial review, and Cheney's absurd theory of the Unitary Executive really were dictatorial claims and, in some cases, practices.
As Gene Lyons puts it in Unfinished businessArkansas Democrat-Gazette 01/07/09 with reference to torture policy:
... it's nothing short of pathetic to observe pundits who urged President Bill Clinton's impeachment for lying about a private sexual matter rending their garments over the prospect of holding Bush administration insiders responsible for war crimes including kidnapping, torture and even murder. ...
It's time we pulled ourselves together. Torture's a coward's idea of toughness; it represents exactly the kind of tribal obscurantism represented by al-Qa'ida. In that respect, the Bush administration's outrages handed Osama bin Laden a huge propaganda victory. The Bush White House panicked in the wake of 9/11, magnifying a band of stateless religious zealots into an existential threat to the republic. Violating their oath to protect and defend the Constitution, they descended to a level of barbarism. As the sadism appeared at Abu Ghraib, the damage to American interests was profound.
Incoming President Barack Obama can't simply pretend these things didn't happen. Whether the situation warrants a special prosecutor, or a commission of inquiry such as those used in nations like Chile, Argentina and South Africa to deal with government-sanctioned barbarism, something must be done. [my emphasis]
Here is the video of Alfonsín's Inauguration ceremonies. He's the guy with black hair and a mustache that's in the scene most of the time (it's in Spanish):
When the military dictatorship agreed to step down in 1983, they insisted on a law of indemnification for their crimes, acts which were illegal under Argentine law. After democracy was restored, Alfonsín insisted successfully that the Congress revoke the amnesty. And he held a trial - not just a "truth commission", they had that, too - that convicted the top leaders of the junta, a trial known as the Juicio a las Juntas. Alfonsín had to suppress more than one coup plot during his Presidency. But he insisted on legal accountability. And Argentina has maintained unbroken democratic governments for over 25 years now, no small thing in a country where the conservative economic powers had preferred military to democratic governments for decades.
Alfonsín discontinued the legal processes after the junta leaders were convicted. But working over the history of that period, including still trying to account for all the victims, has been a major social effort in Argentina since then. When Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency in 2002, followed by his wife Cristian Fernández in 2007, they have made it a priority to continue legal processes against junta criminals.
Jorge Rafael Videla, a man after Dick Cheney's own heart
La Cámara Federal confirmó un nuevo procesamiento, con prisión preventiva, para el detenido dictador Jorge Rafael Videla, esta vez por 30 homicidios agravados, entre otros gravísimos delitos cometidos en la órbita del Primer Cuerpo de Ejército durante la última dictadura militar.
La sentencia también atribuye al represor la responsabilidad en 571 secuestros y 268 tormentos cometidos en centros clandestinos de detención que funcionaban en esa jurisdicción.
[The Federal Chamber [court] has confirmed a new prosecution, with preventive prison [presumably something like denial of bail] against the detained dictator Jore Rafael Videla, this time for 30 aggravated homicides, among other serious offenses committed on the authority of the First Body of the Executive during the last military dictatorship [1976-83].
The charge also attributes to the repressor [Videla] responsibility for 571 kidnappings and 268 cases of torture committed in clandestine detention centers that operated in that jurisdiction.]
One of the other serious offenses includes a plan to steal children born to those in detention on political charges during the dictatorship and have them adopted, often by members of the military or others supporting the junta.
Torture, kidnapping, clandestine detention centers, murder, all justified in the name of fighting terrorism. It sounds sadly familiar. A lot like the list Gene Lyons gave in the quote above.
If Argentina can do it, we can, too. But I don't think the US has a real option to postpone any key prosecutions for as long as 25 years. Without legal accountability and prosecutions of high-level perpetrators, especially on the torture policy, the Dick Cheneys of the next Republican administration will assume they can get away with such things, too.
And so far, the senior leaders of this outgoing administration have gotten away with outrageous misconduct, including torture, much of which goes to the heart of not just democracy but the rule of law. The Founders envisioned the "checks and balances" of the division of powers among the federal government and the states and among the three branches of the federal government as being the best shield against dictatorial acts. But Cheney hit on the right formula, based on an authoritarian Republican Party and a mass fear of terrorism, that overcame the balance of power in the last eight years. The system failed.
Establishing legal accountability for senior Bush officials will be a critical step in getting the system to work again. Congress needs to be able to make laws that are actually obeyed. And the courts need to be willing to step in aggressively when needed to put an end to abuses like we've seen these last eight years.
Congressman John Conyers has proposed a National Commission on Presidential War Powers to look at war-related abuses during the Cheney-Bush years. In the context - especially the fact that the Republican Party is authoritarian and intransigent - I actually think such a commission would be worse than nothing if it forestalls actual prosecutions. We say how seriously Bush, Cheney and the Republicans took that blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group report in 2006, i.e., they couldn't have cared less what it said. Sure, we'll get Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and maybe a few other octogenarian Establishment figures to spend a year working on a report, which will conclude that "mistakes were made" and recommend some new federal office to worry about war crimes and suggest that everyone be more diligent to avoid "abuses".
Then the more timid Democrats in Congress, of which there are far too many, will breathe a sigh of relief and hope it helps them in the 2010 mid-term elections. The Republicans will dismiss it out of hand. Maybe that bold Maverick McCain will offer a toothless resolution condemning "excesses". The Big Pundits will praise the wisdom and moderation of all involved. Sad characters like Ruth Marcus will gush about how foolish it was for anyone to suggest that those fine folks be prosecuted for well-intentioned mistakes.
Then, when Jeb Bush runs as a new "compassionate conservative" and moves into the White House ...