America's Accountability Deficit: Obama Should Address The American Spinelessness on Racism, Torture, Military Commissions and our Aggressive War in Iraq

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By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

 First Day Integrating Brookside School, Montclair, New Jersey, 1961

“We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this — this world has ever known.


But also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.” – President Obama, Chicago, November 7, 2012

In his acceptance speech after the November 6, 2012 election in Chicago in front of a thrilled crowd, an America finally through with the exhausting election process, and a world watching, Obama spoke eloquently of a beautiful vision of America.  He spoke to the best in us in calling on all Americans to come together and that he would be the President for all Americans no matter for whom they voted.

That is all well and good and as it should be for the victor of a Presidential election.  But, it is not enough.

I. Voting

Over the years prior to and during his first term, whether in Democractic primaries, the general election in 2008, during the four years of the Obama presidency, and in the primary and general election process we have just completed, throwback forms of racist discourse were allow to prosper and flourish in our public discourse at a level that harkens back to the George Wallace and 1950’s era.  It was and is shameful.

I particularly call out my fellow baby boomers for what they said and permitted to be said without pausing to challenge what was said.  

I want to hail in particular State Senator Nina Turner of Ohio who was relentless, passionate and absolutely determined to call out each shenanigan and mobilize public opinion and public action to deconstruct the diabolical efforts and push back the efforts to turn back the clock.   I want to hail all the organizations and lawyers who took cases to the courts to challenge successfully the voter intimidation/suppression laws that were put in place by so many state legislatures in so many places out of a reflexive effort to reduce the possibilities of voting of those perceived as their opposition.  The sheep’s clothing of voter integrity did not hide the wolf of voter intimidation and suppression that lay underneath these naked efforts at an illegitimate power grab.  I want to hail Chris Matthews of Hardball, an Irishman of the old school, who was relentless in speaking to all of us and especially to all whites about the racist and thinly veiled racist turn to the invective of the election against President Obama.  I saw many of his guests squirm at his questioning as if this was stuff that should not be talked about by white people in front of all of us (and as if all of us are somehow ignorant of this strain of thought in people’s minds), yet I deeply appreciated the fact that Chris Matthews did not relent and did persist.

I want to call out all of the members of the Republican machine that orchestrated a national effort at voter suppression/intimidation and a national advertising effort to stoke, inflame, and make burn bright a virulent strain of the centuries old animus in this country toward black people as an effort to devalue, demean, and destroy President Obama in the interest of preserving privileges of the most fortunate, their own privileges at all cost, and at the expense of the least fortunate.  That effort demeaned each of the persons who participated in it from Mitt Romney and his welfare ads, his equating of the President’s criticisms with his boys in the first debate, and his last minute “revenge” line of attack to stoke white racial hostility, through John Sununu and his “lazy,” “incompetent” musings on the President, through Trump’s “birther” and “Obama’s grades” nonsense, to Jack Welch’s “manipulation of unemployment statistics” conspiracy delusions.  That effort went on to demean the Republican party through its unholy alliance (through its payment and encouragement of its state parties to use them) with a voter registration company now under scrutiny and I hope multiple prosecutions for voter suppression/intimidation in multiple states.

Yes, I saw, as did many people, the massive coordinated and systematic effort at voter suppression and intimidation of black voters that went on all across this country in statehouses from coast to coast, in meetings of groups like True the Vote, in the coordinated advertising efforts and through the directives of Secretaries of State to confuse and demobilize the most vulnerable in our society as they sought to exercise the franchise.  I saw this effort included intimidation and suppression of Hispanic voters, the most fragile in the elderly, and the most impressionable in the student voting for the first time – but, at its core, the effort was aimed directly at black voters in this country.  Not once, to his shame as an American and as a Harvard JD-MBA, did Mitt Romney call out these efforts that now taint him and the legacy of the Romney family.  You let it happen, you own it now brother.

I worked again as a poll watcher this election on Clay Street here in Toledo and I saw again the beauty of watching people vote – all shapes, all sizes, all colors, and all persuasions.  It is one of the most edifying experiences one can have in a democracy to watch each person and the seriousness of purpose with which they express the franchise.  That, rather than encourage the greatest access to voting so as to assure each person the meaningful opportunity to participate in their governance, we should in 2012 be confronted with wily characters attempting to repress and suppress those ordinary citizens in their noblest moment is shameful and a disgrace.

I want to hail the 39 per cent of white voters who voted for President Obama because their ability to overcome this effort to pull at the basest instincts in them says so much to me.  Since the age of 6 years of age (picture above integrating Brookside School in 1961 with my sister) when I first came to live in  the States with my foreign service parents after being born in Liberia and lived in Tunisia, I have lived with white Americans as they go through the difficult 50 year transition of recognizing that all Americans are first-class citizens.

 That progress is non-linear, yet it heartened me that white people willing to vote for a black man has progressed from the 20 per cent Andy Young talked about during the days of Harold Washington’s mayoral race in Chicago in the early 1983, to 40 per cent today.  As to the other 60 per cent of the white vote, I am heartened to think that with this many white people voting for him, there must have been a good number of white people who voted against him who did not share his vision, but did not succumb to the racist doggerel in voting against him.  My mother started as a Republican in the party of Lincoln days in the 50’s and switched Democrat when the party moved away from her – that is on the party and its strategy, not on those voters who do not see themselves in its embrace of racist voter suppression.  I say that also for the other people of color (Hispanics, Asians, Native-Americans, Middle-Eastern Americans, etc) in this country who have lived our heavy shared history and who managed in the face of this ruthless onslaught to keep an open mind and an open heart in ending up wherever they did. 

President Obama spoke of the long lines of voting, but the long lines are only the tip of a much more massive disenfranchisement machine that was carefully and strategically put in place over years and years with the goal of suppressing the vote.  It is not as blatant as the efforts in the past, but it was and is no less toxic to democracy and to assuring each person the right to internal self-determination enshrined in both domestic and international  law.  We need to move far beyond the idea of reducing the lines to ensure that the greatest number of Americans have the greatest reasonable access to the vote in the next election.  We need to put out of business these characters who feed on the life blood of governance through their efforts and machinations to manipulate the franchise to the detriment of good governance.  It is time for a change from the kinds of shenanigans that have plagued American elections for decades and centuries.  They are not humorous or quaint, they are sick and reflect a sick-minded approach to elections that demeans our country.

We should end as a nation our spinelessness on voter suppression/intimidation and assure accountability that falls like rain on those who dare renew with that perverse part of our history.

II. Torture

Obama’s uplifting vision of America warms the hearts of Americans.  Yet, let me remind us all of our shared history and our shared legacy.  This reminder is not done to blame this person or that group for that history, but rather that we all OWN that history and understand how that history comes into us and informs how we think today.  One of the saddest aspects of contemporary America is this inability we seem to have had trained into us to see the connections with the past in our present.  Like the 1868 Ohio legislative vote to permit challenge of voters with African blood and its relation to the voter suppression/intimidation efforts of this past election in this state.  If one does not know the complex history of divide and conquer in this country, one is perennially susceptible for this age old tactic of domination.

This strange amnesia about the more distant past is even more disturbing in the amnesia about the more recent past.  If we owned what was done to slaves in slavery in the sense of our understanding of the American capability of hurt of our fellow human, I believe it would help us to understand in a more visceral sense the terrible legacy we are allowing to  continue of our torture in the past 10 years.  The architects of that torture attempted to argue a case for it in position papers prepared for Romney.  The Obama Justice department bottled up to the most minute level the accountability effort for that torture done in the past 10 years.

Given the vision that Obama describes above as to the America we want to leave, surely that vision does not include merely covering over the violence done in our name by our leaders in a level of criminality and perversion that harkens back to the darkest parts of our American soul.  We can not remain spineless on accountability for torture by our leaders and their henchpeople.  They are around and, like roaches in the kitchen, await the darkness to scurry out and spread their disease again on the American compact.  We must continue to call them out and submit them to criminal prosecution so  that a jury of peers judges their guilt or innocence, not just the political machinations who would seek to preserve Presidential flexibility through countenancing Presidential lawlessness.

III. Military Commissions

Part and parcel with our spineless on torture is our lack of faith in our traditional judicial institutions to protect us through ordinary law against those who wish us harm.  I have watched the 9/11 military commmission and will continue to watch it.  But, I worry about a quality that seems less present in them than in the court – federal, state, or court-martial.  I would call it something like the rigor of the law.  I am watching what is going on and thinking about it.  That rigor that feels less present in these military commissions troubles me.  It is the rule of law that keeps us free.  We should not be so spineless about our law.

IV.  War in Iraq

All Americans know we were lied into the War in Iraq.  Yet, with the dead who served their country and the wounded warriors we see each day with the consequences of those lies in their bodies, we demonstrate a spinelessness in allowing those who engineered that apocryphal war to sleep quietly in their retirement.  I know that Presidents and former Presidents are a club.  But, that club of those worried about preserving presidential prerogatives is not a club that will protect the public from Presidential lawlessness.  Put simply, they only respond to power and so we need to show them the power that helps them understand that one does not simply get to go off to retirement when one lies a country into a war.  There is accountability – real accountability – through facing a jury of one’s peers.  We do not think this way about accountability for former Presidents because we are too tempted to slip into the vision of sovereignty that is associated with kings.  But, our framers of the Constitution made it crystal clear that the President does not have despotic power of a king.  And, when despotic power of the kind that misled this country into the War in Iraq occurs, we are under a duty to not be spineless in our Presidency and institutions and hold all the key leaders of that effort accountable for their breaching of their duty to each of us and – through aggressive war – to the community of nations.

Let us have spine President Obama.  Let us have spine on each of these.