The following is an excerpt from a talk by Nick Mottern on April 19, 2009, delivered after receiving a Peace and Justice Award from the WESPAC Foundation in White Plains, New York.
I asked (several friends) what they would like me to speak about today, and the consensus was: Tell people why you do peace and justice work. I will get to that in the course of my remarks.
I want to address a fundamental issue facing us right now: President Obama has said that people who have committed torture during the Bush/Cheney years will not be prosecuted. He said: "Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past - we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future."
I would like to make two points.
First - President Obama is sending the message that there will be no investigations and prosecutions that are "divisive," that is, if they are politically difficult.
Is this a message then to the Yonkers (New York) police, for example, that they will not be prosecuted under federal law if they continue to humiliate and physically abuse people in the black and Hispanic community?
Is Mr. Obama sending a message to certain big bankers who are stealing from us every day in a variety of ways that they are simply too big to be prosecuted?
Is it a message that the legal system that is decimating our black and Hispanic communities with the disproportionate imprisonment of black and Hispanic men will go unchallenged?
My second point is that Mr. Obama's judgment on prosecution of torturers is central to the wars of our time.
Richard Nixon was forced out of office by Watergate; a burglary and cover-up, which was also an attempt to cover up domestic terrorism against his foes and particularly against African-Americans working for economic and social justice. Nixon was disgraced, but he did not go to jail.
But Nixon was not investigated, indicted or disgraced for a set of far greater crimes than Watergate. He and Henry Kissinger, and others, had, in the course of pursuing the Vietnam War, systematically, knowingly and willfully violated the US constitution and international law. International law doesn't get much respect in the US, even though it was forged out of the misery, degradation, sufferings and deaths of millions of people.
Nixon was a war criminal. Kissinger is a war criminal. They were responsible for millions of deaths, including the deaths in Cambodia wrought by our war on that nation which led to the scourge of Pol Pot.
We who were fighting for an end to the Vietnam War made a big mistake when that war stopped. We did not stay in the streets until Nixon, Kissinger and the others were investigated, prosecuted and imprisoned for war crimes.
I volunteered in 1962 to go to Vietnam. I was in the Navy on a ship that had extremely boring duty in the Pacific. I was 21 years old. I was looking for more exciting duty and the mystery, romance and adventure of Asia. I had been an avid reader of Terry and the Pirates comics. I believed our government, that we were fighting Communism and that that was important. And, it was an argument that gave me a righteous reason for what seemed to me high adventure.
Fortunately, I did not see combat in Vietnam. I was not called on to directly kill, nor was I threatened directly with death. But I went to Vietnam prepared to kill. And I did see death. I did see massive corruption. I was there because of a decision by then-President John Kennedy to expand the number of troops in Vietnam. I was there because of lies. I was there because the war crimes of the current Vietnamese leaders and the deceptions of the US had been covered up. I went to Vietnam because of lies and youthful stupidity, but nevertheless I feel a need to do what I can to repent for participating in the atrocity of Vietnam because I shared the same will to power and will for glory that drove our leaders and drove them to lie.
I believe that had Nixon and Kissinger been held accountable for their war crimes, we probably would not be in the wars we are in today. That is because in the very divisive process of investigating and prosecuting Nixon and Kissinger and others, we the American people would have learned something life-changing about ourselves as a people and about our acceptance of war.
Barack Obama is not given the right by our Constitution to be the judge and jury for torturers. I include Bush and Cheney in this category although they committed other war crimes. Mr. Obama and our Congress took oaths to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. They must be reminded that they must do this job regardless of whether they think it is divisive or not.
If President Obama and the Congress do their jobs of enforcing the law with respect to torture and other Bush and Cheney war crimes, they will begin unraveling the web of deceit that has supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
We as Americans will learn things that we must learn to save countless lives here and in countries where we are supporting and waging war.