Can we find ideas — political ideas — big enough to be worthy of this moment?
You know, before the cynicism and the disappointment and the recession and the dumbed-down media and, oh yeah, the regrouping Republicans, conspire to dull Barack Obama’s election into the bitter memory of hope and harass his presidency into something that resembles Clintonism and business slightly to the left of usual (if that).
Right now and perhaps for the fabled “first hundred days,” the sense of possibility is as palpable as it is vague. There’s a yearning in the air, but for what? When I was at the post office the other day, the clerk could scarcely contain her enthusiasm for the Lincoln stamps she was showing me — four views of Honest Abe, see. Here he is as a young man; now he’s practicing law; now he’s in Congress; and, finally, here’s the 16th president, the Great Emancipator, deep and wise, the Lincoln we remember, in the embrace of history and myth.
And we both knew, in some unstated way, that she was really showing me Obama stamps. This is what our expectations are, and they’re impossible. Yes, of course.
This yearning is probably too diffuse to leverage into political change. It will certainly drain off, be reabsorbed by the distractions of American life, unless we figure out how to act on it, aim it at the politicians we elected, demand that they represent us and begin shaping “hope” into collective action. The yearning, I am certain, is for spiritual breakthrough and deep national conversation about what just happened — the Bush era — and what we do next.
All of which is a way to say, call Sen. Patrick Leahy. Doing so may be as good a place as any to start. This past Monday, the Vermont Democrat, in a speech at Georgetown University in which he decried the “dark days” that are just ending — of torture and pre-emptive war, domestic spying, a hyper-politicized Justice Department, a screaming Constitution — presented an idea that may be big enough to capture the spirit of the moment:
“We need,” said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “to get to the bottom of what happened — and why — so we make sure it never happens again.
“One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process and truth commission. . . . not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers, and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth. Congress has already granted immunity, over my objection, to those who facilitated warrantless wiretaps and those who conducted cruel interrogations. It would be far better to use that authority to learn the truth.”
Anger pauses. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Something profound struggles to be born. Truth is a public commodity without which no society is free — and how long has it been since we have been free? The secrets have been piling up for decades . . . for the entirety of my lifetime. George Bush simply accelerated the process.
Leahy, by using the term “Truth Commission,” has defined the seriousness of the crimes committed over the past eight years and linked his proposal to an international movement to examine out-of-control governmental power: to drag this behavior out of the shadows, to see it in full detail, not for the sake of punishing the perps, which, if that is the end, sets powerful counterforces into motion, but simply because change — a moral upgrade of humanity — is possible only if we know the truth.
In his Georgetown speech, Leahy referred to two past truth commissions as models: South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the little known Truth Commission convened in Greensboro, N.C., in 2005, 16 years after Klansmen and neo-Nazis killed five people at an anti-Klan rally in that city (and all-white juries acquitted the six people arrested).
Many other such commissions, on scales both large and small, have been convened over the years. Amnesty International makes note of 32 of them, in 28 countries — including El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Uganda and East Timor — between 1974 and 2007. Amnesty is also one of a number of groups that have called, since Obama’s election, for the establishment of a Truth Commission in the United States. Veterans for Peace is another; it passed such a resolution at its 2008 national convention. And Leahy’s House counterpart, John Conyers, has introduced legislation to establish a panel to probe the same dark terrain of Bush administration “unreviewable war powers.”
Will the public support a Truth Commission — not a whitewash panel but a commission with teeth, including the power to issue subpoenas and grant immunity in exchange for full, honest testimony? Before Leahy can push on it, he needs to know where we stand. Please tell him. Call his office at (202) 224-4242 (or e-mail: email@example.com). Hope will die unless we set it in motion.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column ator visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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