War Crimes, Then and Now
In the course of a very thorough fisking of Michael Goldfarb’s latest attempt to justify torture, Julian Sanchez makes the rather banal observation that failure to prosecute war crimes in World War II doesn’t obviate the need to prosecute war crimes today. Goldfarb’s argument has never made a whole lot of sense to me, but then Andrew Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears, so we may as well go ahead and waterboard away. After all, you wouldn’t want to lock up Old Hickory, would you?
Aside from how little Goldbfarb’s “Truman was a war criminal, too!” argument makes sense, I’m totally baffled by people who look to past atrocities for some sort of ethical guidance. Shouldn’t a just and decent society seek to improve its moral record? Shouldn’t we want to reevaluate past mistakes? Shouldn’t we be trying to make better moral judgments than our predecessors? One might assume that Americans would be interested in at least some introspection, but we’ve now regressed to the point where I find myself nodding along to Slavoj Zizek op-eds.
None of this is to say that Truman (or Jackson, or even Bush for that matter) isn’t a sympathetic historical figure. But at this point, it seems abundantly clear that allegations of torture merit serious investigation. We like to say society has progressed over the past fifty years – the burden is now on us to prove it.