Garrison Keillor claims to be a liberal. He—and we—should know better. Keillor has just joined the already large and ever-growing list of allegedly liberal media figures who either advocate or apologize for torture.
In a recent column, the National Public Radio mainstay (and author, storyteller, humorist, and musician) allowed that "widespread waterboarding and other acts of torture carried out in secret CIA prisons are no small matter." He added, "The free play of sadism on the helpless in the name of national service is not to be ignored." He called for "a fair and thorough congressional investigation." He said we should "subpoena witnesses and lay the whole wretched business out on the public record. Look into the heart of darkness and meditate on it."
But when it comes to "criminal prosecution," and "holding the Bush administration responsible for torture," the Man from Lake Wobegon says we be going too far, that something is rotten in America: "I smell the sour righteousness of the victorious lording it over the vanquished."
That's right: the self-described "old museum-quality Northern liberal" says that holding high officials responsible for the murderous torture they carried out in his—and our—name would only yield "high political drama that would feed the media goat" and "sap the body politic." As a result, Keillor claims, "The health-care system would go unfixed, schools would crumble, basic public services would deteriorate, all so that the left could have at the right." (Wasn't it the right that let the health-care system go unfixed, schools crumble, and basic public services deteriorate in the first place? Oh, never mind.)
Instead of squaring off "in a bloody battle over war crimes," Keillor proposes a new focus on infrastructure, music and foreign languages: "Let's return decent train service to the Midwest and test out the German maglev [magnetic levitation] system—the 360 m.p.h. trains—and connect Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City. Let's restore education to the public schools so that our kids get a chance to hear Mozart and learn French."
And instead of prosecution, Keillor's solution is that old bromide: "Let's move on."
After all, he says, there were extenuating circumstances that turned us into torturers:
"Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city—I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things—and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security. As Orwell said, 'We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.'"
So if those rough and ready torturer-men shouldn't be blamed, whom then to hold accountable? That's simple—the rest of us!
"I think the American electorate knew who they re-elected in 2004," Keillor helpfully points out. "Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform, they ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes."
Mistaking prosecution for retribution, Keillor says what is needed "is not punishment, but truth," since "retribution makes poor politics." But so too does historical amnesia, ignoring reality, normalizing the unspeakable—and "moving on" before ever determining the truth underlying what it is we're supposedly moving on from.
It's true that what we need now "is not punishment, but truth." It's also true, as Keillor wrote, that "the guy they really want to put on trial is the old brush-cutter of Crawford, or else the old grouse hunter of Wyoming. They're the guys who signed off on those memos authorizing torture. The buck stopped at their desks."
That's where the prosecution should stop as well—even if it means we'll have to wait a little longer for the maglev and decent train service to the Midwest!