The IG report of CIA abuses is simply the most recent example of America's tendency to tolerate violence against civilians in the name of war. That is not to minimize the horrors it describes, or the importance of its release. Far from it. The techniques that were used to intimidate prisoners into believing they were facing imminent death are repulsive. (It should also be noted that many detainees died in US custody, some of which are referred to as murders.) If one actually takes a moment to visualize the terror one would feel if a soldier approached you carrying a power drill while you were hooded, naked, and had literally no idea where you were (city, country, or continent)--well, the desired effect of that torture technique is quite readily apparent. It should also be noted that many of the prisoners, while called "enemy combatants," had never been accused of, much less convicted of, any crime.
The CIA abuse case breaks from history because these atrocities were specifically sanctioned by the highest levels of elected government. That's what makes the prosecution of those responsible for the torture memos so important, and that's why Holder's "narrow focus" on rogue interrogators is discouraging. Simply finding more scapegoats--ie, low level CIA interrogators--won't do anything to prevent actions like this from being taken in the future. (Glenn Greenwald writes extensively about this topic. One of his many relevant pieces can be read here.)
Scapegoats, of course, brings us to My Lai. Four decades after the fact, William Calley apologized for his role in the massacre of a Vietnamese village comprised primarily of women, children, and the elderly. Calley, a former lieutenant, was the only person convicted in the massacre. He was given a life sentence, which was commuted by Richard Nixon. According to the Times' report,
"The governor of Georgia at the time, Jimmy Carter, called Mr. Calley a “scapegoat.”
Calley told the group “I did what they say I did,” but also maintained that he was following orders."
He "maintained that he was following orders," and yet he was the only person convicted of a crime. Ever since Nuremberg, "following orders" has not been a viable defense, and those who commit crimes under that pretense should be punished. The problem is when punishment stops with those at the bottom of the totem pole. We saw this happen already with the tragedy at Abu Ghraib, and, now, it appears that we may see the same thing happen with the CIA abuses.
We must also remember the vast catalogue of American violence against citizens of other countries in the 20th century, and the total lack of legal accountability officials have faced. We remain the only country to have used nuclear weapons, one of our highest officials identified himself as a "war criminal," we waged a war of choice in Vietnam that resulted in the deaths of between 1 and 2 million Vietnamese, and a separate war of choice in Iraq has killed between 92,000 and 101,000 civilian deaths. The CIA alone is responsible for a legacy of failure, death, and intervention in the Middle East, and Latin and South America. Not one high ranking official has spent time behind bars for any of this. In fact, on the rare occasion that a high-level official is even charged with a crime, these sentences are either pardoned, as was the case with Nixon, or commuted, as was the case with I. Lewis Libby.
In presenting this brief list, I don't mean to say necessarily that Truman, or every president who presided over 'Nam, should have faced prison time. I'm simply putting forward the argument that as a nation, we fundamentally don't believe our leaders are capable of acting wrongly. That is the heart of "American Exceptionalism," a doctrine to which every major political and media figure must swear undying, unrelenting allegiance. Our leaders simply can't be evil--we're America! after all--and so holding them accountable to either domestic or international law is the height of unfairness. The USA acts in good faith, the myth goes, so punishment is unneeded and unwarranted.
It is in this context that we must view the crimes of Bush officials. Not as some isolated incident that we can simply "get over" by "looking forward," but as the result of a continuous and implicit policy of this country--namely, that no matter what the crime, those who are most responsible for the deaths of civilians will not be held accountable. Instead, low-level grunts--if anyone at all--will bear the brunt of the law. Holding Jay Bybee, John Yoo, and anyone else who authorized torture accountable is a necessary, and, in fairness, radical step towards a better country.