“If the present tries to sit in judgment on the past, it will lose the future.”
— Winston Churchill
In 1940, Churchill was addressing his decision to keep Neville Chamberlain and other pacifists in government after becoming British prime minister in 1940. The Chamberlain crowd had brutally mocked Churchill's war preparation message in terms that rival today's merry-go-round in Washington.
Churchill knew, of course, that Chamberlain had never been his friend. But Churchill also knew that with the Germans swooping down on Dunkirk that “this was no time for proscriptions of able, patriotic men of long experience in government.”
President Obama is right to try to put behind us whatever torture, or not, the CIA performed and the Justice Department approved against potential terrorists following 9/11. Whatever they did, it was not in the category of our enemies' brutality and it was done with the hope, fulfilled or not, that it would save another horrific attack on this country.
We don't destroy the reputation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for rounding up 22,000 American citizens and immigrants who had no connection to anything and herding them in concentration camps for four years. We don't persecute the soldiers behind the firing squads who gunned down alleged German saboteurs who were convicted in military tribunals without benefit of unbiased counsel after undergoing what was surely torture. We don't attack the staffers of Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln, who both suspended habeas corpus during their respective wars.
Why will neither the left nor the right let this go and let President Obama get on with dealing with the massive issues facing the nation?
Yes, mistakes were made. They always are. Fubar is a World War II term, snafu is from before that and there's not a single person in this country who can't point to some governmental stupidity or screw-up. Almost all of us can point to some absurdity in our jobs and in our own families.
But that's not the same, right? That's not waterboarding.
Put yourself in the room and listen to the likely exchange, translated of course: “I can't tell you anything. If I do, they will bury every member of my family up to the waist and choose only very small stones so the pain lasts days before we die and if they are in too much of a hurry they'll take a dull, rusty knife and behead me. I'd rather stay here, eat better than I ever have, complain when my Koran gets wet and be considered a hero by those same lunatics.”
The way our nation immediately goes into attack mode against itself — from rabid bloggers to attack journalism to politicians looking to appease interest groups to lawyers seeking contingency fees — we indeed are punishing ourselves for the overzealousness of a few.
We drive good people away from public positions by our vicious finger-pointing at the so-called crime of being wrong, confused or simply having to act without enough facts.
We know in our own lives that situations are never black and white. But we presume, somehow, that attacking someone who made a governmental decision, perhaps the wrong one, will lead to better government. Instead, it leads to worse government because people not married to any ideology wind up shying away from government positions, leaving only rabid true believers from either the left or the right in positions of power.
We know in our own lives that we get invested in, for example, “throwing good money after bad” while we rationalize ourselves slowly into acting contrary to our principles, but somehow we assume that government employees instantly are faced with good-versus-evil decisions without any bewildering context.
The world is complex and we Americans always try to force that complexity onto a bumper sticker: “The Axis of Evil,” “Yes, We Can,” “The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own,” “O, What a Mistake.”
We desperately need to consider a longer bumper sticker: “What we learn from history is that we fail to learn from history.”
And history indicates that President Obama is right. Let it go, left and right. If America can actually stop this attack, we might actually find our finest hour. S
Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.
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