It may be time for an American version of the “truth and reconciliation” commissions that other countries have used to restore their reputations and boost national self-respect. Such a commission could bring closure to an era in which America’s good name has been tarnished and many Americans have lost pride in their own government.
These bad years opened with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. They so traumatized the country that Congress and most Americans let the Bush administration respond by starting an unprovoked war in Iraq and by establishing a counterterrorism program that has violated the international rules of war and the basic rights guaranteed by our own laws and Constitution.
Much of the sordid story has already come to light through official self-investigation and through media reports. Among the worst of the misdeeds are torture of prisoners under contrived legal justification, the secret arrest and kidnapping of suspects without notice or legal process, sending many of them off for brutal interrogations in a string of secret foreign prisons. To this, add the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
The entire story is far from clear. How many detainees have been tortured? Is it still going on? How many people have been kidnapped or arrested? Where are the secret prisons, and are they still operating? Who knew about these secret operations, and who authorized them?
A new book, “The Dark Side” by Jane Mayer, marshals known facts and provides fresh details of government misdeeds and cover-ups. It could serve as a starting handbook for a public accounting.
The inquiry should not be a witch hunt. Its purpose should be informative, not prosecutorial. It should be bipartisan, since both major parties and all Americans have an interest in putting this problematic era behind us and ensuring that it can never be repeated.
Congress probably should take the lead in establishing a truth commission. Its head should be an experienced person recognized for courage and integrity. Among the possibilities could be former Sen. George Mitchell, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Objections are inevitable, including the argument that it would serve no good purpose to rake up the past and that we should simply move on. But that course would leave an incoming president with multiple unresolved scandals and unremitting demands for investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the abuses.
Truth has led to reconciliation in other countries. It should be considered by the United States as a means of restoring the country as a beacon of freedom and justice.