Opening a can of worms always tempts a mischief-maker, but it’s risky business. That can of worms might turn out to be a can of snakes, like Barack Obama’s latest gift to the nation.
The president’s on-again, off-again, maybe-he-will and maybe-he-won’t decision to punish someone who loosened tongues of Islamist terrorists at Guantanamo suddenly threatens not only the CIA interrogators and Justice Department lawyers, but even members of Congress. Maybe it won’t stop there: if the lawyers who offered legal opinions are at risk of punishment for their legal advice, why not the members of Congress who knew what was going on? Why not the secretaries who typed up the transcripts? Why not the interns who fetched the coffee? All were accessories either before or after the fact.
We’re on unfamiliar ground now. No president before has sought to punish his predecessor for policy decisions, no matter how wrong or wrong-headed. Lyndon B. Johnson’s management of the Vietnam War was often ham-handed, as anyone who was there could tell you, and his policy makers sometimes verged on criminal incompetence. But Richard Nixon was never tempted to send LBJ or any of those presidential acolytes to prison. Abraham Lincoln, by his lights, would have had ample opportunity to hang Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but even the rabid Republicans who survived the assassination stopped short of putting Davis in the dock, finally releasing him from imprisonment at Fort Monroe when judgment overcame lust for revenge. Lee was never touched.
Exacting revenge for unpopular policies is the norm in the third world, heretofore more likely in Barack Obama’s ancestral Kenya than in America, more in the tradition of gangland Chicago than in Washington, where we count on cooler heads to prevail when raw emotion threatens to overwhelm sobriety and the undisciplined senses. We recall perceived national mistakes with the sadness of regret and even gratitude for lessons learned, not the frenzied catharsis of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Mr. Obama, having won the White House fair and square, is entitled to change any presidential policy he chooses, but the vindication of a national election does not entitle any president to exact mindless revenge.
The loquacious prince of Hyde Park should understand this, having eloquently sounded caution and reason on his inauguration as president, promising as he had during the long campaign to “look forward,” not “backward.” Rahm Emanuel, once described as the president’s alter ego (if indeed such an outsized ego could have an “alter”), said as recently as Sunday that “it’s not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back in any sense of anger and retribution.”
This was in line with what the president had said all last summer when he was campaigning for the White House, what he had said on his inauguration, and in line with his oft-stated goal of restoring bipartisan civility and mutual goodwill to governing the country. Mr. Emanuel’s reassurance was regarded in Washington as putting paid to an ugly era, an emphatic determination to “move on” to something close to national unity.
The president hadn’t counted on the rage of the jackals on the leftmost fringe of his party, organizations like MoveOn.org, which want only the “unity” of the lynch mob. They demand a hanging and the president promises only to think about it. Ever confident that his golden tongue, with or without the teleprompter, would mesmerize all foes and vanquish all rancor, Mr. Obama then threw George W. Bush’s lawyers to the mob.
Perhaps the president imagines that nobody cares much about what happens to lawyers, but he has set in motion something neither he nor anyone else can control. Some of the Democrats in Congress, eager now to join the mob, will regret what they cry for. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for one, was a member of the House intelligence committee and sat in on super-secret briefings after Sept. 11. She concedes that she heard about waterboarding but she doesn’t remember exactly what she heard. Just like Barack Obama sleeping through 20 years of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rabid sermons, Ms. Pelosi dozed through the briefings. Her colleagues on the intelligence panel say they remember her demanding that the CIA do more to get the “intelligence” to prevent another attack.
Republicans in the Senate, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are finally finding their voices. So is Joe Lieberman, a courageous Democrat. If we’re going to have hangings, Ms. Pelosi may be at risk of becoming our most famous female hangee since Mary Surratt paid her debt at the end of a rope for hanging out with John Wilkes Booth.
Stomping on snakes is never pretty.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.