Earth Matters: Payback

I had just been caught at the unspeakable, and we won’t speak of it at any length here. My father labeled my behavior unspeakable, a not unexpected departure from my teenaged business as usual. We often landed on different sides of the fence—no surprise there.



I knew I was in it hip-deep in front of the fan, though, and stood ready to withstand my father’s wrath. I was still a minor and recognized his ultimate parental authority over me… just barely. I settled back in a chair anticipating all kinds of black scenarios, but he surprised me.
“I do not approve of what you do,” he said, “but I am not going to judge you. I will leave that to a greater judge than me.”
My first thought was surprise that my lawyer father wouldn’t act the judge. My second thought was that my father’s religious faith must be substantial and his love for me great. Furthermore, if he wasn’t going to judge me, then he might not exact punishment. Whew! What a load off. My surprise was piqued because I had thought my father unerringly of the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child persuasion.
Since I was often on the receiving end of punitive response, I grew with the perception that punishment should at very least be carefully tailored to the infraction. I figured the Catholics might have it pegged with mortal and venal sin. Mortal wrongs were really bad and mandated severe punishment. Venal stuff, on the other hand, was perhaps not so morally bankrupt, but instead the consequence of failings hardwired into human nature. And after all, I was nothing if not human. I still am.
I also remember one of my first high school research papers, a study of capital punishment. I barely understood what I was researching at the time, which makes it even more improbable that I should remember it all these years later.
The gist: Does capital crime like homicide warrant the death penalty? After weighing conventional wisdom on the matter, I came down somewhere in the middle, conflicted and ambivalent, but convinced for whatever reasons that bad actions can warrant severe retribution. That realization kept me out of trouble—well, most of the time anyway. Yet the threat of retribution didn’t deter others from wrongdoing.
Seemingly without judging one way or the other, in 1974 President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon. Nixon served as my first serious political whipping boy during those Vietnam days, and his blatant disregard for law during Watergate further incensed me. I was outraged that with the stroke of a presidential pen, Nixon would walk. He would escape punishment for breaking the law.
Years later, and on a different political tack altogether, President Bill Clinton got into all kinds of trouble. The payback was a partisan effort to exact retribution on Clinton for his dalliance, appropriate if only because a president should exercise propriety. But after all, what Clinton did wasn’t murder. No one died. Clinton’s impeachment lasted months and cost taxpayers millions. What did it accomplish? Not a hell of a lot.
So have you guessed where all this is leading? Yup—when we’re talking presidential malfeasance, all roads lead to George W. Bush.
The Justice Department recently released Bush Administration memos declaring interrogation of “high-value” detainees outside proscriptions of domestic law and the Geneva Conventions. The memos claim Bush had the authority to approve any technique needed to protect the nation’s security. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld outlined 24 interrogation techniques to be used, among them “walling,” waterboarding, sleep deprivation and slapping.
Over objections from human rights groups and even members of his own administration, President Obama at first said he would absolve CIA officers from prosecution for using torture. He wants to move beyond, “a dark and painful chapter in our history.” Then he equivocated, laying it on the Justice Department or whatever; the saga continues.
Like before, I am ambivalent. The excuse of “just following orders” seems less and less exculpatory, although following orders is what military service is. The buck must stop up the chain of command, at the highest office that issued the order. Then go after that guy and make the punishment appropriate to the offense. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal—someone in that hierarchy must answer. Taking those guys down, though, will require a greater judge than me… or maybe not.

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