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Outside column: Before pursuing Bush & Co., let's acknowledge our own guilt

Posted: Sunday, May 24, 2009

If incompetence was a crime, you might have a case. Heck, if arrogance was a felony, you could put them on death row.

But these things are not against the law, so forgive me if I'm not sold on the argument that we should launch investigations of the failures of the Bush years. It's a view advanced by many, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, who wants to empanel a "truth commission" and CNN commentator Jack Cafferty who wants a special prosecutor.

No one will ever mistake me for a Bush apologist. George W's presidency was the most wretched of my life. And yes, I do remember Nixon. Yet I'm unconvinced there is anything to be gained from this.

In the first place, incompetence, as I've said, is not illegal. Granted, certain of the administration's actions probably crossed a legal line: according to the General Accountability Office, for instance, paying pundit Armstrong Williams to say good things about No Child Left Behind violated federal laws against propagandizing the public. Still, most of the signature sins of the Bush gang - Katrina, Iraq, torture, politicizing the Justice Department - are not so much violations of law as defilement of the public trust.

That is not - obviously - a small failing. But that doesn't make it prosecutable.

Besides, building a legal case against Bush or any of his top aides would stir the hornet's nest of conservative extremism. The loose cannons on the right thrive from feeling put upon - last month, they took to the streets en masse and the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession because it was tax day, for goodness' sake! - and it is hard to imagine them feeling more put upon than they would if Bush were in the metaphorical stockade.

You might reasonably say we should not forestall justice just because people threaten temper tantrums. Good point.

On the other hand: given the fragile state of the economy, the challenges of a two-front war, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the Taliban resurgence in Pakistan, you have to ask yourself whether we really have the time and the bandwidth to spend six months, a year, two years, rehashing Bush blunders, all while extremists litter the streets with teabags, Rush Limbaugh's head explodes on a daily basis and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas draws up articles of secession.

Put me down as skeptical - but willing to be convinced.

See, I share the frustration of Cafferty, Leahy and others that no one was ever held to answer for the failures of the last eight years. Unless you count Lynndie England, that is. She's the former Army private immortalized in those infamous photos of prisoner mistreatment from Abu Ghraib. England, who went to prison while the higher ups whose rationalizations and justifications led in a beeline to the terrible things she did, walked away scot-free.

Ultimate responsibility, though, rests even higher than those higher ups. It rests with we the people.

Yes, the Supreme Court put Bush in office the first time, but 51 percent of us returned him there four years later, by which time we should have known better. But the Bush gang played our fears as old men in the park play chess, i.e., obsessively and with skill, a brilliant game of half truths, dire warnings, moral incoherence. And we - most of us - fell for it.

Now the GOP pretends it has never heard of George W. Bush while Patrick Leahy demands his head on a pike. But some of us know the accountability that matters most will not come from a truth commission, will not come until we the people confess our own role in this. We supported him. And when he overrode the laws and values that make us who we are, we remembered our fear and looked the other way.

But we cannot remain a great people if we discard the things that make us great every time the world says boo.

So the buck stops here.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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