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It’s tough trying to please people who crave vengeance almost as much as Madame
Defarge, the unsparing French revolutionary in Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.”
That’s what Barack Obama found out last week–and will find out next week and
for weeks to come unless he settles once and for all that he will follow the
practice of all his predecessors and not prosecute decision makers in the
previous administration. The Madame Defarges of the Democratic Left want to see
the guillotine flash down and heads roll. Specifically, they want to see the
prosecution or impeachment of officials who approved enhanced interrogation
techniques–torture, in their view.
The president, it appears, is of two minds. On April 16 he released
memorandums from the Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel approving the
interrogation methods and said that CIA interrogators relying on them would not
be prosecuted. Also released was the partial text of a letter from Director of
National Intelligence Dennis Blair characterizing those memos as “graphic and
disturbing.” Obama was criticized for revealing intelligence information useful
to our enemies. “Nobody should pretend,” wrote Washington Post columnist David
Ignatius, who approved of Obama’s decision, “that the disclosures weren’t costly
to CIA morale and effectiveness.”
On April 20 Obama journeyed to CIA headquarters and defended his decisions.
But the Madame Defarges had their knitting needles out, hauling in petitions
with 250,000 signatures and demanding blood. On April 21 Obama caved in, saying
that Bush administration officials who approved the methods could be prosecuted
if the attorney general wanted to press the cases. He didn’t give the Madame
Defarges all they wanted, resisting Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call for a 9/11-type
It is an article of faith among the Madame Defarges that the interrogation
techniques they consider torture didn’t produce useful information. All along,
Obama tried to pay homage to this dogma. The text of Adm. Blair’s letter
released to the public carefully omitted his admission that “high value
information came from interrogations in which the methods were used.” Just
normal editing, said his spokesman. Yeah, sure. Nor has Obama showed any sign of
agreeing to Dick Cheney’s demand that the full results of the interrogations
should be released. That might embarrass the Madame Defarges.
Whence cometh the fury of these people? I think it arises less from revulsion
at interrogation techniques–who thinks that captured al Qaeda leaders should be
treated politely and will then tell the whole truth?–than it does from a desire
to see George W. Bush and Bush administration officials publicly humiliated and
repudiated. Just as Madame Defarge relished watching the condemned walk from the
tumbrel to the guillotine, our contemporary Defarges want to see the people they
hate condemned and destroyed.
It doesn’t seem to matter to our Madame Defarges that it’s not clear that
Bush officials violated any criminal law. One of the core principles of our law
is that criminal statutes must be construed strictly against the government. If
the government wants to deprive someone of his liberty for doing something, it
should be very specific about what that something is. This distinguishes our
system from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that demand, like Alice’s Red
Queen, “verdict first, trial later.”
It also doesn’t occur to the Madame Defarges of our times that revolutions
like hers tend to devour their own. Robespierre followed Marie Antoinette to the
guillotine not so many months later. Today we see Pelosi trying to explain how
she was present at confidential briefings where the enhanced interrogation
methods were described and did nothing to stop them from being applied. If there
is going to be a “truth commission”–a title that is redolent of Stalinist
purges–shouldn’t she be one of the first to testify?
As for Barack Obama, asked in September 2007 if we should “beat out of” an al
Qaeda higher-up details of an impending attack, he said “there are going to be
all sorts of hypotheticals, an emergency situation, and I will make that
judgment at that time.” So “torture” just might be OK under the right
In the meantime, Obama’s appeasement of the Madame Defarges carries a
political price. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that 58 percent of Americans
believe his release of the CIA memos endangers national security. Show trials of
Bush administration officials could raise that number. Appeasing the Madame
Defarges may cost more than it is worth.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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