Friday, November 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

When your nation's only accountability is a late-night comedian

When your nation's only accountability is a late-night comedian

Also, about last night....I did indeed watch the interview that torture-enabler, Inquirer op-ed columnist and Episcopal Academy alum John Yoo did with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." And...it was what it was, which was an interview of a highly intelligent, unflappable and affable man who did some very, very bad things.

An interview conducted not by a prosecutor, or a congressional investigator, the kind of people who should be asking questions of the former Bush administration official who wrote the memos authorizing torture at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

But by a comedian.

Jon Stewart -- who used to act occasionally -- decided to play the role of Everyman, wide-eyed and dumbfound by Yoo's torture explanations as well as his broader argument that the powers of the president are almost limitless during wartime, which -- since advocates insist that the "war on terror" is essentially endless and limitless itself -- all but turns an American commander-in-chief into a dictator. At one point, a baffled Stewart blurted out: "This doesn't make any sense to me."

Understandable. Yoo's interview was laced with misleading statements or half-truths -- even even revived the old "No. 3 in al-Qaeda" trope at one point. He insisted he was merely trying to find how far U.S. interrogators could go, but Yoo ignored decades of U.S. legal precedent that has held the technique of waterboarding as torture. He also suggested at one point that Congress and the judiciary could stop a wartime president from going to far, even though his book seems to argue the exact opposite.

As noted by American Prospect's Adam Serwer:

Stewart allowed Yoo to claim the U.S. had never really considered what is and isn't torture, despite the fact that the U.S. statute against torture was very clearly violated by Yoo's recommendations and that waterboarding had been prosecuted as a crime as recently as 1983.

Stewart never confronted Yoo on the question of how the torture regime, reverse engineered from training meant to help soldiers resist torture, could possibly not be torture. Stewart never even contested the idea that torture was effective, despite the high-profile declaration of FBI Interrogator Ali Soufan that he personally extracted all of the useful information from [Abu] Zubayda prior to his being tortured.

Why didn't Stewart nail him on these statements?! Maybe, um, because he's a comedian -- one that people admire because he has a sense of moral outrage in addition to a sense of humor, but a comedian nonetheless. Stewart was able to "compel" Yoo to testify in the court of public opinion because Yoo needed the Daily Show to help sell his new book. Of course, there's plenty of folks who could compel Yoo to testify in a real court or investigate hearing. But this is America -- we don't really do the whole accountabilty thing.

Call it the new American exceptionalism. As Glenn Greenwald and others have noted, other nations around the world are going through exhaustive investigations of what went wrong during the decade of the 2000s in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, even as the United States -- which masterminded the Iraq invasion, opened up Gitmo, and waterboarded prisoners during that period -- is the nation with the most to answer for. Consider England, where the Chilcot inquiry into the launching of the Iraq war continues to make front-page news. Heck, even Iran is charging people in the deaths of its detainees. Here at home, we refuse to look back, fearful that our massive Jenga tower of militaristic foreign policy might collapse.

The selling of John Yoo is made even more frustrating by the fact that in his case, there actually is the potential for some measure of accountability. More than a year ago, in the waning days of the Bush administration, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility wrapped up a report that is said to be quite damning toward Yoo and a colleague -- reportedly accusing the lawyers of "sloppy legal analysis, misjudgments and possible political interference" and recommending them for possible disbarment. Amazingly, the report has been kept under wraps by an Obama administration that seems no more motivated to hold torture criminals accountable than the administration that committed the crimes.

In a perfect world, there would be criminal investigations and charges against Yoo and the others behind the Bush torture regime. At the very least, the Justice report on Yoo must be released and disbarment proceedings must begin. Because the idea that America can handle one of the worst stains on our nation's legacy through a late-night comedy show is the biggest joke of all.

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Will Bunch
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