The Peanut Corporation of America is responsible for hundreds of cases of salmonella in the United States. Investigators found "dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers" in its Plainview, Texas processing plant, prompting the Texas Department of State Health Services to recall every product ever made from peanuts shipped from the facility. In Blakely, Georgia, the story is the same -- Peanut Corporation of America ran an astonishingly unclean operation. All told, 600 people have suffered food poisoning. Nine have died. Calls to the company's telephone number "elicited a recording that said it was no longer in service." For all intents and purposes, Peanut Corporation of America no longer exists.
But the man ultimately responsible for his company's operations still exists. PCA owner Stewart Parnell was subpoenaed to testify to congress. He pleaded the fifth and refused to testify.
Clearly, congress has hit a dead end. Parnell can't possibly be prosecuted, his company is in no danger of ever returning to poison people, and it's time to let bygones be bygones. What we need to do is find out what happened, so we can avoid it ever happening again. And the best way to do that is to put together a blue ribbon panel and hold a third world style truth and reconciliation commission. No one will be charged, no one will go to jail, no one will pay any price, Parnell can get on with his life and we can get on with ours. But we'll get the truth and that's what really counts.
You might've noticed that my little synopsis veered off into crazy town around the third paragraph. Of course Stewart Parnell should be prosecuted -- along with those managers and executives who helped him sell garbage to unsuspecting families. So what if his company is shut down and will never sell poison again? So what if he won't testify? So what if all this has happened in the past?
Parnell lacks one quality that would apparently put him above or beyond the law -- he's not a former President of the United States. Stewart Parnell is just a former Poison Peanut King. When anyone else has committed a crime, they have to face the legal system. When a former President has committed a crime, we have to have a truth commission -- without prosecutions -- to get to the bottom of the crime and let the criminals walk away. There will be no jail time, there would only be embarrassment for the accused -- that is, if he weren't shameless. But the accused is shameless, so there wouldn't even be that. He would face the wagging finger of justice and retire to Dallas a rich, rich man. Maybe hire a ghost-writer and put out a memoir. And his example would do absolutely nothing to prevent future executives from committing similar crimes. After all, the crime without any real consequence might as well be legal -- without punishment, there is no crime.
But this is Sen. Patrick Leahy's solution -- not to the garbage vendor's crimes, of course, just to Bush's. What we need is a truth and reconciliation commission that, in any practical sense, would be a panel put together to write history. They'd have subpoena power and the ability to prosecute perjury, but no power to prosecute the underlying crimes. We'd get the truth, while criminals in the Bush administration get off scott free.
"People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts," Leahy said. "If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers, and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth."
Some find Leahy's suggestion a frustratingly wrongheaded. "There's no question that torture occurred here," constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann tuesday. "There's no question that it was a war crime. And so the only reason to have a commission of this kind is to avoid doing what we're obligated to do under a treaty."
"It is shameful that we would be calling for this type of commission..." Turley continued. "We're obligated to investigate. This whole discussion in front of the whole world is basically saying that we are not going to comply with the promise we made, not to ourselves, but to the world." Not surprisingly, law professor Turley is absolutely correct about our obligations under international law. Prosecuting torture is not optional. In other words, Leahy's solution is most likely illegal.
"At the end of the day, no one believes that people will be prosecuted for a known war crime -- and when we do that then we will become accessories," Turley said. "Those crimes of President Bush will become our crimes. His shame will become our collective shame."
Even worries that prosecutions would be politically unfeasible are misplaced. A USA Today/Gallup poll finds that about two thirds support investigations and, of those who want probes into Bush crimes, about 61% want to see prosecutions. In fact, more people (34%) would rather do nothing than those who'd like to see Leahy's proposal (24%). And it's hard to imagine that many who preferred Leahy's idea would be heartbroken if there were prosecutions. I think if you polled people and asked them which solutions they opposed most, you'd probably wind up with very different numbers.
If Leahy's truth and reconciliation commission is the best we get, I'll take it. But it's not the best we can do. We can hold criminals accountable for their crimes, no matter who they are or what position they used to hold. It doesn't matter if they were the president of a peanut company or President of the United States, the law is for everyone and applies to everyone. We shouldn't let crimes go unpunished unless we've got a damned good reason to do so.
In the case of George W. Bush and his administration, that "damned good reason" just isn't there. As I said, if you don't punish a crime, then it might as well be legal. With Leahy's proposal, some future president considering crime could look back in history and say, "Let's go ahead and do it, the worst that could happen is that we wind up like Bush."
No one fears the wagging finger of justice.