NEW YORK—Do you believe in intelligent design? It's the argument that the universe is so logical that it must have been planned out by a master creator. Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist, single-handedly disproves the existence of such a God.
Friedman is the nation's most prominent opinion writer. He wins journalistic prizes. Audiences shell out big bucks to hear him speak. Book collections of his columns become bestsellers for months on end. Yet the dude can't write. I'm not talking about his opinions. Friedman doesn't know how to arrange nouns and verbs in a way that is pleasing to readers of the English language. He is to writing what George W. Bush is to oratory.
Stranger still is Friedman's role as uber barometer of conventional wisdom. When Congress, media tastemakers and thus most Americans bought into Bush's Saddam-has-WMDs story, Friedman did, too. When the Iraq War started to go wrong but officially acceptable opinion wanted to stay and "finish the job," so did he. When everyone threw up their hands in disgust, Friedman was there with them.
Of course, he was wrong. He's always wrong. But he's always in perfect sync with conventional wisdom—which is almost always wrong.
Friedman's prose appears to have barely survived the linguistic equivalent of a harsh interrogation technique: "Because that is when al-Qaida's remnants will try to throw a Hail Mary pass—that is, try to set off a bomb in a U.S. city—to obscure its defeat by moderate Arabs and Muslims in the heart of its world." Did he get this sports metaphor from some think tank neocon, or was he lame enough to make it up himself? Whether he leads or follows the average mean of the mainstream, Friedman's role as the nation's ultimate bellwether is what makes him worth reading.
Which is why it's so disquieting to read about Friedman's support of President Barack Obama's refusal to prosecute torturers. Times Tom may be a fool. His logic is certainly hopeless. But the people who matter—Congress, editors and producers at the big papers and broadcast networks and thus most of the public—agree with him.
Seven years after accounts of torture by American soldiers and CIA operatives first became public, the revelation that one detainee had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month has stricken a Katrina-like nerve. Conventional, mainstream, average, generic U.S. public opinion wants something done about it—an investigation, maybe prosecution of a few of the attorneys who authored the torture memos—but nothing close to genuine accountability. Friedman's April 29 column reflects this internal conflict:
"Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 percent of these declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees [Friedman's emphasis], and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials."
By Friedman's math, the military admits to the torture-murders of 27 people. He's low-balling. He doesn't include detainees murdered by the military in other places like Guantanamo or the Navy's fleet of prison ships, killed by the CIA at secret prisons, or slaughtered by foreign torturers after being "extraordinarily renditioned" by the United States. Even so, 27 is a lot. No one would suggest letting a serial killer off the hook for 27 torture-murders.
Friedman does. "The president's decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible," he writes, is justified. Why? Because "justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart."
"Rip our country apart." Wow.
Granting prosecutorial immunity to war criminals like Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Powell is already "tearing the country apart."
First and foremost, it confirms many people's suspicion that there are two systems of justice in America: one for the rich and powerful and another for you and me. If I kidnap a man and hold him overnight, I face the death penalty or life in prison. Bush and his top officials ordered the kidnapping of tens of thousands of men as young as 12 years of age, the torture of thousands and the murder of hundreds. Until America's official mass murderers are treated as harshly as its freelance psychos, Americans will view their justice system as something to be feared rather than respected.
Not only does extending executive privilege into retirement—and not even conservatives think there's a legal basis for this—encourage lawless behavior by current and future political leaders, but it feeds partisanship. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for lying about a BJ. He was also disbarred (and rightly so). Nixon, on the other hand, resigned before being impeached and never faced a jury. If Bush and his minions get away with murder, does that mean that only Democrats are subject to the rule of law?
If the officials who ordered torture, the legislators who let it happen, the lawyers who justified it and the men and women who carried it out are not held accountable, the message will not be—as Obama seems to believe—that the Bush years represented some weird aberration in American history. Obama will be telling the world that the 2008 election changed nothing, that legal illegality could return at the drop of a hat (or the detonation of a dirty bomb), that his administration protects the criminals and thus endorses their crimes. Millions of Americans, many of whom voted for him, already feel alienated from a country that expresses values that it doesn't live up to. Refusing to prosecute Bush deepens their cynicism.
Cynicism, Mssrs. Friedman and Obama, is what's ripping the guts out of America every second of every day. Only consistent and fair application of the law can begin the healing.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?