Roger Cohen makes a stunning argument in today's New York Times:
So I’m wary of the clamor for retribution. Congress failed. The press failed. The judiciary failed. With almost 3,000 dead, America’s checks and balances got skewed, from the Capitol to Wall Street. Scrutiny gave way to acquiescence. Words were spun in feckless patterns.
Those checks and balances are recovering now. I don’t think this recovery would be served by prosecutions, either of C.I.A. operatives or those who gave them legal advice. Such legal action, if initiated, would split the intelligence services and the military in paralyzing ways at a time when two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are still being fought. The country would be lacerated.
I agree with Cohen that the press failed miserably in the aftermath of 9/11, but given that the coverage of the torture debate has focused not on whether American officials broke the law but rather how the president might be weathering the political storm surrounding the release of the torture memos, I'd suggest that the press really isn't done failing yet.
Cohen's argument simply reflects the consensus among certain journalistic and political elites that the powerful simply shouldn't be held accountable when they make mistakes, because, after all, we all make mistakes. This compassionate attitude naturally doesn't extend beyond this small group. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, fully 1 percent of the population. I'm sure there are millions of people currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen's policy of absolution for crimes was extended to them.
More important, this entire philosophy has it backward. Accountability is the burden of the powerful in a democracy. Those who are responsible for upholding our laws shouldn't get a pass when they break them, precisely because they have that responsibility. Power without accountability is, by definition, tyranny.
-- A. Serwer