A Radical Proposal

Want to end the threat of terrorism against this country? Ten years of aggressive warfare hasn’t worked, so let’s try a different approach. Put George Bush on trial for war crimes.

Whoa, what? Yikes. FBI might be knocking down my door soon. But hear me out.

I realize, of course, that there is zero chance of George W. Bush being tried for war crimes. His successor, Barack Obama, long ago made clear his own intention is to “Look Forward, Not Back” – never mind that there could be no functioning legal system if we were to truly embrace that concept. I understand that no American President is going to arrest and prosecute for crimes against humanity another American President. That would just be rude.

But by refusing to prosecute Bush for violations of the law – specifically for ordering the torture of prisoners, as President Bush admitted to, proudly (in writing) – Obama has himself violated the law. The United States has signed international treaties banning torture, and according to the Constitution, those treaties are the law of the land. The same way that you and I have a legal obligation to file our tax returns, our leaders have a legal obligation to investigate possible war crimes. This puts Obama in a bind – although he obviously doesn’t perceive it that way.

That’s too bad, because the trial of George Bush would be the public relations win of the millennium. In one shot, al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts would shrivel and die, as the entire jihadi argument against the West collapsed, and Americans were vindicated as a people so dedicated to the principle of equality before the law, they prosecuted their own chief executive for falsely leading them to war.

Imagine the power of the televised images of a courtroom where George W. Bush stood accused of aggression for the invasion of Iraq – testimony from the collaterally damaged holding the entire world transfixed, as the once most powerful person on earth sat fidgeting behind a table, flanked by a dozen white lawyers. Prosecutors would read the collected works of John Yoo, and the world would listen along with the judges to how that infamous wordsmith craftily carved justifications for threatening the family members of prisoners, slamming them against walls, keeping them awake for days, and giving them the water torture – all of it signed off and approved by the big man himself, the defendant, the former President of the United States.

It would be painful for us Americans, as a people, to watch this. It would feel like a betrayal; giving up our own guy. It would tear us further apart, push us closer to that nebulous tipping point, the one beyond which lies a mob in the street. Why should we do such a thing, when it’s clear that, as the dominant power on earth, we don’t have to?

Precisely because no one can make us do it – that’s why. In case it hasn’t been made clear to us yet, after a decade of war: We cannot “defeat” the terrorists. We cannot “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Somalia, or Yemen, or Pakistan), because our very strategy fuels the forces we are fighting. The only victory we want is to have a country – a world – where there are very, very few (if any) nutballs who want to kill us. The best way to achieve this goal is by living up to the professed ideals of America, the ones that really are universal but to which we only pay lip service: democracy, justice, freedom. Foreigners are just as inspired by those things as we Americans are, but they can see when we are bullshitting them about human rights – like when we’re supporting and upholding a repressive dictator… for thirty years.

A trial in which America purges its own soul, by putting on the stand the same leader who managed the US response to the September 11th attacks, would instantly turn the tide of global sentiment. Instead of claiming that Americans only favor democracy when it suits us, people would have to admit that we lived up to our values. After Bush was presumably found guilty, it would naturally follow that Guantanamo must be closed, and the wars brought to an immediate end, thereby undermining the rationale for attacking America. There would surely be some mujahideen still committed to harming us, but they would be true dead-enders, unable to attract any followers. No one would listen to al-Qaeda after having seen America lock up George Bush for aggression and torture.

Having noticed the major rift in the American population, and the vicious attitudes each side maintains for the other, I’m sympathetic to the argument that this kind of partisan witch hunt – a Democratic President prosecuting a Republican past-President – would really rip this country wide open. To avoid that nastiness, I propose a compromise. We already know that Obama has no intention of upholding the law, making him complicit in the crimes. Therefore, let the next American President be the one to clean house and finally end this awful war. Let him or her run on a platform of prosecuting the war criminals who have ordered torture from the White House, and those who have covered it up.┬áIt’s a bipartisan solution the whole country can get behind: lock the bastards up.