ESSAY- First stone: Why I won't be protesting John Yoo

Almost the minute the announcement that the Justice Department ended the possibility of censuring lawyers who wrote memos backing extreme measures to question potential terrorists in the immediate wake of 9/11, my email box began to fill with pitches from liberal groups seeking money to fight that so-called travesty and pitches from conservative groups seeking money to stop persecutions of such patriotic Americans.

Now, even before I read in my local newspaper that memo-writer John Yoo will speak March 19 at UVA, the liberal groups were asking me to join in protesting his right to speak– and to give them money. By the next day, the conservative groups were after my checkbook as well.

While my checkbook will stay closed, I'd love to hear Yoo's reasoning in the Miller Center of Public Affairs' brilliant "Forum" for writing those memos which were used to condone waterboarding. But I don't want to be part of a circus, and I'm sure that's exactly what will become of both of Yoo's Charlottesville appearances.

President Obama was right, I submit, in trying to put behind us whatever torture, or not, the CIA performed and whatever the Justice Department approved against potential terrorists following 9/11. Whatever "they" did, it was not in the category of our enemies' brutality and it was done with the hope, fulfilled or not, that it would save another horrific attack on this country.

A generation ago we didn't destroy the reputation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for rounding up 22,000 American citizens and immigrants who had no connection to anything and herding them in concentration camps for four years. We didn't persecute the WWII soldiers in the firing squads who gunned down alleged German saboteurs after their convictions in military tribunals and after undergoing what was surely torture. 

The thesis of Yoo's book, Crisis and Command– that the executive branch gains power during national security emergencies– after all, is a no-brainer to anyone who studies even basic American history. Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln got away with suspending habeas corpus during their respective national security crises and, even without a crisis, Teddy Roosevelt forced Congress to appropriate a massive increase in naval funding. 

Yes, mistakes were made by the Bush Administration. Mistakes are always made. FUBAR is a World War II term. SNAFU is from before that, and there is not a single citizen in the country who can't point to some governmental stupidity, some governmental screw up.

But the way our nation presently goes into attack mode against ourselves– from rabid bloggers, to attack journalism, to politicians looking to appease interest groups, to lawyers seeking contingency fees, to groups seeking donations– we have gotten to the point of punishing ourselves for the overzealousness of the few. We are driving good people away from public positions by our vicious finger-pointing at the "crime" of being wrong, confused, or simply having to act without enough facts.

We know in our own lives that situations are never black and white. But we presume, somehow, that attacking someone who made a governmental decision, perhaps the wrong one, will lead to better government. Instead, it leads to worse government because only the rabid, true believers from the far left or right take future chances of being in compromising positions while the investigations leave most bureaucrats with masses of paper to analyze when time– or common sense– might be of the essence. The one thing all of us, from all political stripes, should have learned from Iraq is that everything is confusing in The Middle East; that "right" may even have the same definition as "wrong."

When America needs rational, realistic thinking today, instead we get the blame game. The fastest email might get the money but all of us get screwed. 

How many good, competent, caring people are not going into government today because they know some future decision might plaster them with unfathomable hatred?

How many bureaucrats don't act rapidly because they have hundreds of pages of instructions to look through before actually doing what can't be blamed as either over- or under-zealous?

I'm not a Christian, having only spent time a few hours in church for weddings and funerals in the last 40 years, but Jesus was right when he said: "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

When Yoo speaks March 19, let's try to remember Christ and even more to the point, try to remember what Winston Churchill said when he kept Neville Chamberlain, and others who had brutally mocked his war preparation message, in the British government during the dark days of 1940:

"If the present tries to sit in judgment on the past, it will lose the future."


Randy Salzman taught media law for 20 years. Now, he lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.