Despite reports that Trump was considering ringing in Memorial Day by issuing pardons to accused and convicted war criminals, the holiday week has passed and so far he has thankfully not followed through. Make no mistake, this move would be twisted, dangerous, and has been thoroughly and rightly lambasted as such by many, including by high-ranking military officials. But as we wait to find out if this is a real plan or just more Trump bluster, it’s important that we take a step back. This moment calls for more than righteous anger: it calls for some painful self-reflection.
The individuals who may be poised to receive a pardon from Trump engaged in despicable and intolerable behavior under the guise of keeping America safe. And they aren’t the only ones. We could compile pages of examples throughout American history of atrocities committed in the name of security, but actually, we need not look that far into the past. Just in the post-9/11 era, we’ve seen numerous US actors — from the highest levels of government all the way down — brazenly defy law and morality in the name of security.
The difference? Most of them don’t need pardons from a president. That’s because they’ve gotten away with their crimes.
Without accountability, atrocities and those who perpetrate them are normalized and entrenched within our society and the cycles of brutality continue.
Barack Obama made a decision once elected as president not to hold officials from the Bush administration accountable for torture, civilian harm, and other abuses under the “War on Terror” umbrella. He insisted we must “look forward, not backward.” It was a momentous and consequential decision, and arguably paved the way for many of those abuses not only to continue but to be normalized today.
It wasn’t just Obama. American society also seemed to be ready to move on without securing accountability. It became clear that unrepentantly championing the murderous Iraq War or designing the illegal CIA torture program weren’t barriers to success in just about any industry or institution. John Yoo, author of infamous Bush-era “torture memos,” now sits comfortably in academia and continues to publish commentary on current affairs. James Mitchell, who got rich designing innovative psychological torture techniques for the CIA, now sells memoirs and gives high-profile talks about his experiences on cable news and at think tanks.
Some odious figures have even found their way back into the halls of power. Gina Haspel’s long CIA career included operationalizing torture and secret detention at one of the infamous black sites, then destroying the evidence. But, no matter. She sailed to easy bipartisan Senate confirmation last year as director of the very same agency where she once unrepentantly carried out her crimes.
We can even see the effects in our pop culture, where atrocities are routinely normalized or even celebrated. There are obvious examples like Zero Dark Thirty or 24. But it even appears in children’s entertainment, such as in the original Shrek or Minions films, where extended torture scenes are played for a laugh.
These things sound trivial, but they matter because they are indicators of the generational damage that has been done by our government’s decisions to absolve atrocities and our failure as a society to insist that there be accountability.
It matters because it informs the future trajectory of our democracy. Just think: it seems unpalatable at this moment for Trump administration officials like former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to one day be welcomed back into friendly society or perhaps even ascend back into government after previously presiding over such cruel and widely-detested policies as family separation.
But it wasn’t that long ago that many would have predicted the same for Iraq War champions like David Frum or Bill Kristol who once worked overtime to sell the public on the disastrous conflict that spawned ISIS. Yet they have experienced a rapid public rehabilitation such that they now frequently populate #Resistance Twitter with viral posts. As another example, John Bolton has been wildly wrong throughout his career, and people have died as a result. But he’s already returned to power as National Security Advisor and might finally get the bloody Iran war he’s always wanted.
Without accountability, atrocities and those who perpetrate them are normalized and entrenched within our society and the cycles of brutality continue. Trump’s contemplated abuse of his pardon power is outrageous, and an extreme extension of this culture of impunity.
We must take difficult but essential steps as a society to create conditions that would prevent it from ever happening.
Trump shouldn’t be pardoning war crimes. And neither should we.