Ask any member of the United States Armed Forces to show you their military identification card, and you will notice on the front of that ID, at the bottom and in clear print, the words "Geneva Conventions Identification Card." I carried one of these military ID's for 11 years, and whenever I had reason to think about the Geneva Conventions or the possibility, however remote, of becoming a prisoner of war, there was always a small sense of comfort that I would be protected.
It is now clear that the Bush administration's decision in January, 2002, that classified members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as "unlawful combatants"--and therefore outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions--was the key decision in a dangerous chain of subsequent legal opinions that resulted in the mistreatment, abuse and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and CIA black-sites around the globe. A line was crossed, and laws were broken.
However, I agree with President Obama's recent decision that Bush administration officials responsible for writing, authorizing and executing these policies should not face criminal charges. While I do believe they violated the letter and the spirit of U.S and international law, this country does not need criminal prosecution of these people. It can, and must do better.
Instead, we should demand that "justice" be brought in a different fashion--by granting these people immunity from prosecution in exchange for the forfeiture of their Fifth Amendment rights, and the requirement that they give full, honest and frank testimony before a United States Truth Commission on Torture.
The point of a Truth Commission is not to establish whether abuses occurred, or if prisoners were tortured. We already know they were (Khalid Sheik Mohammed--the embodiment of evil that he is--was waterboarded 183 times in one month. I will not debate here the question of "did he deserve it," but that is torture). Rather, the point of the Truth Commission is to establish why and how these decisions were made, and to identify solutions and recommendations that will insure they can never occur again.
Without immunity, we will never fully understand what forces of logic and nature brought members of our government to conclude it was necessary and justified to torture another human being--regardless of that person being a suspected mass murderer and terrorist. No criminal trial will bring to light the full truth, as hard as we press to get at it. Instead, we must demand that these former members of our government stand before the court of public opinion to defend the actions they took and the decisions they made. We, as a nation and as individuals, can render our own verdicts.
There is precedent here. After the abolition of apartheid in the mid-1990's, the government of South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As the final TRC report itself states, the Commission was founded with a mandate to:
"uncover as much as possible of the truth about past gross violations of human rights - a difficult and often very unpleasant task. The Commission was founded, however, in the belief that this task was necessary for the promotion of reconciliation and national unity."
Congress should move swiftly to impanel such a Commission, with a similar mandate to bring forth the truth. The Commission should be made up of an even, bipartisan selection of prominent Americans capable of investigation and examination, however unpleasant it may be, and where ever it should lead.
As a nation, we cannot pretend that this will never happen again. There will be another terrorist attack somewhere, someday. But without a true and honest explanation of what transpired in the years after 9/11, we risk another generation of government officials repeating these mistakes again.
The bottom line is that there is and will forever be a stain on our collective national conscience as a result of the abuse of detainees and prisoners by the United States government. We have a chance to make amends for these sins, not through words, but through actions. Let the decision makers, lawyers, interrogators and anyone else involved in this matter state their case in public without fear of reprisal or imprisonment. Let us find out what really happened, and decide, as a collective republic, once and for all, where our values stand.