From the look of the presidential campaign, war crimes are back on the American agenda. We really shouldn’t be surprised, because American officials got away with it last time—and, in the case of the drone wars, continue to get away with it today. Still, there’s nothing like the heady combination of a “populist” Republican race for the presidency and national hysteria over terrorism to make Americans want to reach for those “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That, as critics have long argued, is what usually happens if war crimes aren’t prosecuted.
In August 2014, when President Obama finally admitted that “we tortured some folks,” he added a warning. The recent history of US torture, he said, “needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that so hopefully we don’t do it again in the future.” By pinning the responsibility for torture on all of us “as a country,” Obama avoided holding any of the actual perpetrators to account.
Unfortunately, “hope” alone will not stymie a serial war criminal—and the president did not even heed his own warning. For seven years his administration has done everything except help the country “take responsibility” for torture and other war crimes. It looked the other way when it comes to holding accountable those who set up and ran the CIA’s large-scale torture operations at its “black sites” around the world. It never brought charges against those who ordered torture at Guantánamo. It prosecuted no one, above all not the top officials of the Bush administration.
Now, in the endless run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, we’ve been treated to some pretty strange gladiatorial extravaganzas, with more to come in 2016. In these peculiarly American spectacles, Republican candidates hurl themselves at one another in a frenzied effort to be seen as the candidate most likely to ignore the president’s wan hope and instead “do it again in the future.” As a result, they are promising to commit a whole range of crimes, from torture to the slaughter of civilians, for which the leaders of some nations would find themselves hauled into international court as war criminals. But “war criminal” is a label reserved purely for people we loathe, not for us. To paraphrase former President Richard Nixon, if the United States does it, it’s not a crime.