I had a good laugh when my friend Seth Gitell reported in the New York Sun on a campaign by the dean of the obscure Massachusetts School of Law to put George Bush and other top White House officials on trial for war crimes.
Lawrence Velvel, Gitell notes, wrote last month that his model was the Nuremberg trials held after second world war. Velvel went so far as to say that "we must insist on appropriate punishments, including, if guilt is found, the hangings visited upon top Germans and Japanese." Oh, my.
Though I found Velvel's apparently earnest quest as ridiculous as Gitell did, the idea of holding our leaders accountable for the crimes and constitutional violations of the past seven and a half years isn't ridiculous in the least.
We are less than a decade removed from impeaching a president and nearly relieving him of office because of a lie in a civil deposition about blowjobs. Yet when congressman Dennis Kucinich recently attempted to impeach Bush over torture, extraordinary rendition and other grotesque constitutional abuses, Kucinich's embarrassed fellow Democrats couldn't kill the measure quickly enough.
Why? Top Democrats are so complicit in what has happened since 9/11 that my guess is they dare not travel down that road. From voting in favor of the war in Iraq to holding the telecommunications companies guiltless for their role in spying on Americans (Barack Obama infuriated much of his progressive base by voting for immunity), the Democrats have often acted more as enablers than as a true opposition party. From their point of view, no doubt it's best to move on.
And yet we can't move on. Everywhere you turn, there are reminders of the demons that have been unleashed in the name of fighting terrorism. We are less democratic and less free than we were before Bush and Dick Cheney entered office following an election that they demonstrably did not win. If we don't come to terms with what happened, there's little chance of reversing our slide into authoritarianism.
We shouldn't be too optimistic. Even when the truth is proclaimed, few are willing to listen. Not long ago the McClatchy newspapers published a five-part series on what went wrong with American detention policies, mainly at Guantánamo and in Afghanistan.
The massively documented stories revealed horrifying tales of torture and abuse; of innocent Afghans imprisoned for years because they ran afoul of tribal rivalries the Americans didn't understand; of ordinary people radicalised and transformed into violent jihadists inside US-run prisons. Yet because McClatchy is not part of the media elite, its journalism has barely been mentioned by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the television networks.
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We find ourselves, nevertheless, at a certain transformational moment where things that had long gone unsaid are now being spoken aloud. Take, for instance, the ideologically promiscuous war supporter Christopher Hitchens, the British expat who recently underwent waterboarding - voluntarily - and pronounced it to be torture. Hitchens can't help himself from inveighing against any "lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilisation and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out". Still, he concludes by saying he wishes Americans didn't practice torture.
Or consider Vincent Bugliosi's new book, The Prosecution of George W Bush for Murder, which has zoomed up the bestseller lists despite having received virtually no attention from the mainstream media. Bugliosi, a celebrity lawyer-author with a decent reputation, argues that because Bush misled the country into the war in Iraq, he should be held criminally responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.
Finally, consider that most mild-mannered of liberal pundits, the Times' Nicholas Kristof, who on Sunday actually called for the formation of a truth commission in the manner of post-apartheid South Africa "to lead a process of soul searching and national cleansing".
The determinedly bipartisan Kristof, who did read the McClatchy series, writes that both Obama and John McCain should commit themselves to forming such a commission. For that to make sense, though, you'd have to ignore such inconvenient facts as McCain's own ambiguous stands on torture and his demagoguery over the supreme court's recent decision upholding the habeas corpus rights of those being held at Guantánamo.
Velvel is organising a weekend-long war crimes conference to be held in mid-September at his campus at the Massachusetts School of Law. The school is located in the beautiful New England town of Andover, home of Phillips Andover Academy, of which Bush is an alumnus. Shuttle buses will be running from the nearby Wyndham Hotel for those attending from elsewhere. It promises to be a fun-filled two days of righteous anger, leading to nothing.
But if Bush shouldn't be hanged by the neck until dead, as the ancient pronouncement would have it, he - and we - nevertheless must be called to account for what we have allowed to happen to our country. If we don't, then we are all responsible - if not for what happened, then for what is yet to come.
Longtime media critic Dan Kennedy teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and blogs at Media Nation.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008