Barack Obama is implying that he isn’t likely to pursue criminal investigations and prosecutions of President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and other high U.S. officials for purported violations of criminal laws as part of their “war on terrorism.” Presumably, that includes federal crimes against torture, wiretaps, kidnapping, and even murder.
Apparently Obama’s rationale is that since Bush and his associates were supposedly trying to keep America safe when the crimes were purportedly committed, they should be let off the hook.
However, since when are good intentions a defense to a criminal prosecution? How about the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been damaged or destroyed with drug-law prosecutions and convictions? Were they let off the hook if they had good reasons for violating the law?
Consider, for example, a drug user who says “I smoke dope because it helps me with my illness.” Do the DEA and the Justice Department say, “Okay, that’s all we needed to hear. Since you’ve got a good reason for having violated the law, we will leave you alone”?
Or take the case of a robber. After being caught, he says, “I committed the robbery to get money to pay for my mother’s cancer operation. She would have died without it. What I did is no different than what the IRS and Medicare do.”
Would the state say to the robber: “We understand. Since you had a good reason for robbing the victim, we will leave you alone”?
If a person has a good reason for committing a crime, that doesn’t constitute a defense to the crime but rather something to consider in mitigation of punishment.
Thus, no matter how sincere Bush and Cheney and their associates might have been in violating the criminal law, assuming they did, that should not preclude them from being charged and prosecuted. Why should they be treated differently than private citizens? Isn’t the criminal law supposed to apply to everyone, regardless of status in society? Or are the rich and the political elite to be accorded one system of justice and the poor and powerless another?
Recall the henchmen who operated under Augustine Pinochet, the strongman who took power in a coup in Chile. They were ultimately prosecuted for doing many of the same things that people in the Bush administration have purportedly done — torture, sex abuse, murder, and disappearances of detainees.
Yet, Pinochet and his people claimed that it was all necessary to keep Chile safe. There was the state murder of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat in the democratically elected Allende regime that Pinochet had ousted from power. In the eyes of Pinochet and his henchmen, Letelier was a communist who could rightfully be killed anywhere in the world, even on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Should the Chilean officials have been let off the hook? They sure thought so. Before relinquishing power, they gave themselves grants of immunity from criminal prosecution.
Much the same thing occurred in Argentina, where the ruling military junta, before relinquishing power, immunized military officials for crimes relating to kidnapping, torture, murder, and disappearing people, which had been committed in the purported attempt to keep Argentina safe.
To their everlasting credit, the Chilean and Argentine citizenry disagreed with the self-granted grants of immunity. Although it took many years and lots of courage and perseverance, they demanded and secured criminal prosecutions and convictions against many of the malefactors.
The American people are now facing the same issue that the Chilean and Argentine people faced: Should public officials who purportedly broke laws against torture, sex abuse, kidnapping, and murder be charged with those offenses or should they be permitted to escape justice because of supposedly good intentions?
The correct answer is reflected in the words of British judge Lord Mansfield, who stated in Somersett’s Case in 1772: “Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall.”