September 2019

“We tortured some folks.”

So admitted then-sitting President Barack Obama on August 1st, 2014, discussing the release of a Senate report detailing the CIA’s illegal torture regime. Strictly speaking though, it wasn’t true—“we” didn’t do anything. Agents of the American government, acting under the advice of the Bush administration’s Department of Justice, “tortured some folks.” And rather than prosecute the torturers and their lawyerly abettors for the crimes Obama recognized they committed, the Obama administration worked hard to make sure they would never face any kind of justice. In a press release accompanying the release of the Bush administration torture memos in April 2009, President Obama wrote:

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.

Yes: how dark, how painful for us.

At the same time as he was neglecting to reckon with the crimes of the recent past, Obama was overseeing the commission of new and different atrocities, including extrajudicial killings by flying robot.

Today, the Trump administration has seen fit to bring the words “concentration camp” back into the contemporary lexicon, part of an unrelenting, coordinated assault on immigrants, refugees, and domestic racial minorities in which the cruelty is the point, and legality and morality are moot concerns. Will anyone in the Trump administration ever be brought to justice?

Is there a better way? When agents of the American government commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, what can and should be done? This month’s Cato Unbound grapples with that question.

The lead essayist, Charli Carpenter, is a professor in the Political Science department at the University of Massachusett at Amherst. Replying to her will be a panel of three experts: John Glaser is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Joshua Childress was in the U.S. Army and National Guard, and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon leaving the military, hetook a job with the U.S. Border Patrol. After coming to a libertarian understanding of the ethics of the job, he felt obligated to resign. Jamie Rowen, also a professor in the political science department of the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, holds a PhD in Jurisprudence and Social Policy from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Searching for Truth in the Transitional Justice Movement (Cambridge University Press 2017).

Please join us in what is sure to be a stimulating issue.

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From the Editor

This month we are pleased to welcome Grant Babcock of the Cato Institute as guest editor.

Lead Essay

  • Charli Carpenter details several significant U.S. violations of international law in recent history. She lays out the many ways in which the United States is able to escape accountability for such actions, as well as possible venues for achieving justice in the future, some of which have indeed been effective elsewhere. She recommends their use for recent American misdeeds, including drone strikes on civilians and inhumane detention facilities for migrants. Although they are not perfect, the methods of justice that she recommends have a proven track record, and if enough Americans want them, they can be had.

Response Essays

  • John Glaser invokes a standard claim in international relations: The governments of the world confront one another in a state of anarchy. Nor is this a peaceful or well-ordered anarchy, as libertarians might hope for. There is no sovereign to exact any form of justice, and other institutions do so rather poorly. Ideally, he argues, American law would hold wrongdoers accountable here. But partisan loyalties and nationalism generally prevent this from happening.

  • Joshua Childress suggests that the cause of accountability for U.S. government misdeeds could benefit from popular empathy: We should see the faces and know the stories of people whom our government has wronged. He offers several suggestions toward that goal.

  • Jamie Rowen argues that seeking criminal accountability for U.S. misdeeds is perhaps not the most promising way to respond to them. Numerous obstacles lie in the way, including questions of jurisdiction, individual responsibility, and a U.S. government that has systematically sought to shield itself from international pressure. She recommends political rather than judicial redress for these grievances.

The Conversation

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Conversation through the end of the month.