In stating that the point of executive accountability "is not merely to 'lay blame' " but to "set boundaries on presidential behavior and to clarify where wrongdoing will be challenged," John Nichols seems intent on de-emphasizing the "punitive" or "retributive" arguments for such accountability. Indeed, it seems clear that in terms of the current debate on torture and accountability, arguments that highlight "deterrence" rather than "revenge" are far more likely to gain political traction and to be less vulnerable to attacks from the right. In this regard, however, it is interesting that, in what would seem to be a kind of "Freudian slip," the retributive impulse resurfaces in the following paragraph when Nichols states that "truth commissions that grant immunity to wrongdoers...do not check and balance the executive branch any more than 'warnings' punish speeding motorists." Does Nichols oppose "warnings" because they would not serve to punish or because they would not serve to deter? Undoubtedly Nichols would opt for a combination of both, but my point here is that the seemingly unconscious focus on punishment in this analogy leaves him open to the charge that it is really the desire for revenge that is uppermost. Yes, many of us feel a personal desire to see the wrongdoers punished, but this personal desire might not be relevant to the discourse necessary for effective policy-making on this issue.
May 17 2009 - 10:45am