17 January 2009

Justice, supposedly blind, really looks backwards

Soon-president Obama's pragmatism encourages him to take a position on the errors and probable crimes of the Bush era as one of looking forward, not backwards. Unfortunately, as this Times report on Holder's confirmation hearing attests, Justice fixes her gaze firmly on the rearview mirror most if not all of the time (with apologies to Wendt 2001).

The article claims that Holder's admission that waterboarding is torture, "amounting to an admission that the United States may have committed war crimes, opens the door to an unpredictable train of legal and political consequences"; "it could potentially require a full-scale legal investigation, complicate prosecutions of individuals suspected of committing terrorism and mire the new administration in just the kind of backward look that Mr. Obama has said he would like to avoid."

While addressing the wrongs of the past is generally likely to complicate prudential considerations about the future, it is precisely because when it comes to justice the past cannot be wholly forgotten (and, it must be admitted, it often ought not) that optimizing future outcomes is so difficult. Who can argue that the memory of colonialism and decolonization does not complicate international trade negotiations, or that history's unrightable wrongs close off possible solutions to present problems (hint: Israel), or that the world could be a safer and more reasonable place if Americans could just forget about 11 September 2001?

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