Back in 1965, as a 15-year-old kid, I had a chance to spend half a year as a student at a boy’s gymnasium (high school) in Darmstadt, the cultural capital of the German state of Hesse, which had the distinction of having been one of a handful of cities in Germany (Dresden was another) that were selected by the Allies to test out the terror tactic of firebombing. The town was chosen for incendiary bombardment precisely because it had no military value and thus, no air defenses (and because it consisted mostly of wooden structures). With Germany still wreaking horrific damage on the Allied bomber fleet, this made it an inviting target.
Friends and teachers recounted to me the terrors of that night, when the entire city of several hundred thousand, built mostly of wood, went up in a giant bonfire so hot and powerful that it sucked people into it with a 200 mph vortex of inward rushing air. People who hid in shelters were asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen, while those who tried to flee sank knee deep into asphalt streets. Two mountains outside town were man-made piles of rubble left over from the city’s ruins, which were for the most part just carted away. There was little left to rebuild.
While I was stunned by the horror of it, I at the time still felt that after all, Germans had brought this disaster on themselves. After all, they had allowed the Nazi monsters to gain control of the nation and then proceeded with a genocidal campaign of extermination of Jews—even German Jews who were their own neighbors–of Gypsies, of gays, and of course, of Communists, and had launched a war that ultimately killed 10s of millions of people around the world.
I mention all this because one thing I noticed back then, not among young people in Germany, but among adults my parents’ age and older, was a widespread denial about what Germany had done. And I remember feeling, as many Americans and Europeans still do, and as many Chinese and other Asians still feel about Japan, that these two countries have never been willing to face up to the crimes that they, as a nation, permitted to happen in their names.
Older and wiser now, I am well aware that our own country has committed many crimes, some on a scale approaching those of Germany and Japan: the near extermination of Native Americans, the mass, centuries-long enslavement and cultural and physical destruction of millions of African slaves, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian targets, the decade-long saturation bombing and herbicidal poisoning of most of Indochina…
It’s a long and terrible list, and for the most part, in our schools, in our politics, in our histories, we don’t talk about, and even justify and deny our own atrocities.
Now we have a president who is perhaps doing something worse. Admitting that the last administration of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ordered up a program of illegal and inhuman torture of captives in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and in the so-called War on Terror that was launched by them in the wake of the 9-11 attacks in 2001, and offering up documentary evidence of the chain of command that set the country on this criminal course, President Obama now says that to move beyond this “dark and painful chapter in our history,” he will not seek or permit any prosecution of those who committed torture of captives.
“Nothing will be gained,” Obama said, “by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
I’m not that concerned about whether individual torturers in the CIA or the military get prosecuted. If the president had said he would not prosecute people who “thought” they were acting under proper authority and behaving legally, but then added that he would pursue those who authorized and ordered them to torture, I would not have fussed. But that is not what he said. The implication of his statement, and the fact that he has not, this far into his term, ordered his Attorney General to appoint a prosecutor to investigate those who were responsible for the crime, given what he clearly knows about its authors, is the worst possible of travesties, and rises to the level of a war crime itself.
Now I don’t want to equate America’s torture of a few hundred or a few thousand captives by making them endure waterboarding or by placing plastic neckbands and leashes on them and slamming their heads into walls, with what the victims of Buchenwald or Auschwitz endured, but that is really not the issue. The issue is, do we as a nation now subscribe to the idea that the way to deal with evil perpetrated by ourselves is to bury it?
Isn’t that precisely what we have been for decades accusing the Germans and the Japanese of doing: burying in the mists of time their criminal behavior as a people and as a nation?
And now our president—whose own wife and daughters are descendants of slave victims of another era of American atrocities—is telling us we should do the same thing as Germany and Japan: forget and move on.
But the president is wrong. Darkness does not go away when the fog comes. It just gets darker.
Let’s shine a light. Sign the petition: No Amnesty for Torturers!
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org