Treat ’em harshly,
Go to town!
There’s no court
To bring us down.

Torture isn’t a good subject to fail on one’s moral report card. If you’re an individual, St. Peter is likely to take a dim view. If you’re a nation, it can cost you plenty of international prestige, besides putting hot-headed zealots yearning for revenge on your trail.

There is, of course, one effective cure for torture. It’s called prosecution. For the past decade, there’s even been a special tribunal in The Hague to try accused war crime suspects and to punish the guilty. The International Criminal Court has successfully jailed many villains, all from small countries. Big countries aren’t part of this justice system because they claim, falsely, that they can dispense justice themselves.

Take the United States. We make that claim, but somehow we’ve had trouble indicting any of our own officials. We’ll occasionally get the goods on a 2nd lieutenant or a staff sergeant, but higher-ups seem immune. Top officials are in no danger at all. Consequently, the public is. Danger of private retribution lurks where justice fears to tread.

(Mario Piperni / Flickr)

(Mario Piperni / Flickr)

Therefore, what America desperately needs today are some serious prosecutions to clear our moral record. With names changed to protect the suspects, in all good conscience we should investigate George W. Doe, Richard Doe, Donald Doe, Condoleezza Doe, and John Y. Doe. And from the Vietnam War days, Henry Doe. Plus, as the cover-up accomplice-in-chief in Afghanistan and the leading Libya culprit, Barack Doe.

Indeed it was Barack Doe who intoned that the country needs to “look forward, not backward.” As it turned out, the view forward wasn’t all that great either.

The political cooperation that the president counted on in recompense for letting the Republican torturers off the hook never materialized. So now he’s reluctant to look back for fear of turning into a pillar of salt, and afraid to look forward for fear of seeing his place in history as a morally doomed figure.

Luckily for tainted American leaders, they’ve got two powerful forces working in their favor. One is secrecy; the other is the media. Ever since the brilliant invention of classified documents, presidents and potentates have had a whole new crime they can level at whistleblowers — security violation. Any document that might prove embarrassing, such as evidence of torture — classify it! Then if someone reveals it, he or she can be accused of treason, and since the document is secret, officials needn’t discuss it. Just now the “trial” of Bradley Manning is our paramount example of this scurrilous technique.

The media, a president’s other priceless asset, is eager to birddog failures of sexual integrity, but not moral crimes that would diminish the nation’s stature. Thus, if a president chooses to ignore torture and other grave malefactions of state, the media isn’t about to enter that thicket.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative, and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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