In a recent column, (syndicated by the New York Times,) the National Public Radio mainstay (and author, storyteller, humorist, and musician,) allowed that “widespread waterboarding and other acts of torture carried out in secret CIA prisons are no small matter.” He added, “The free play of sadism on the helpless in the name of national service is not to be ignored.” He called for “a fair and thorough congressional investigation.” He said we should “subpoena witnesses and lay the whole wretched business out on the public record. Look into the heart of darkness and meditate on it.”
But when it comes to “criminal prosecution,” and “holding the Bush administration responsible for torture,” the Man from Lake Wobegon says we be going too far, that something is rotten in America: “I smell the sour righteousness of the victorious lording it over the vanquished.”
Instead of squaring off “in a bloody battle over war crimes,” Keillor proposes a new focus on infrastructure, music and foreign languages: “Let’s return decent train service to the Midwest and test out the German maglev (magnetic levitation) system — the 360 mph trains — and connect Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City. Let’s restore education to the public schools so that our kids get a chance to hear Mozart and learn French.”
And instead of prosecution, Keillor’s solution is that old bromide: “Let’s move on.”
“Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city — I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things — and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security. As Orwell said, ‘We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.’”
So if those rough and ready torturer-men shouldn’t be blamed, whom then to hold accountable? That’s simple — the rest of us!
“I think the American electorate knew who they re-elected in 2004,” Keillor helpfully points out. “ Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform, they ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes.”
Mistaking retribution for prosecution, Keillor says what is needed “is not punishment, but truth,” since “retribution makes poor politics.” But so too does historical amnesia, ignoring reality, normalizing the unspeakable – and “moving on” before ever determining the truth underlying what it is we’re supposedly moving on from.
It’s true that what we need now “is not punishment, but truth.” It’s also true, as Keillor wrote, that “The guy they really want to put on trial is the old brush-cutter of Crawford, or else the old grouse hunter of Wyoming. They’re the guys who signed off on those memos authorizing torture. The buck stopped at their desks.”