What Beverly Eckert Can Teach Us About Seeking Accountability

February 15, 2009

With each new sudden loss of life, like the crash of a Continental Airlines flight near Buffalo on February 13, a fresh awareness of the fragility of life and a new sense of urgency washes over us like a powerful wave.  In particular, the life of Beverly Eckert, a passenger on the plane, offers special inspiration for all citizens who believe in holding our government accountable.

Ms. Eckert, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, led families of other 9/11 victims in seeking a thorough investigation of mistakes made by the U.S. government that prevented it from thwarting the attacks.  The New York Times reported the obstacles the families encountered.  They were told all the reasons why such an investigation would not be good for the country.  It would expose weaknesses in the government’s counterterrorism capabilities, for example.  But Beverly Eckert and others pressed on relentlessly until they achieved their goal.  They portrayed resistance to an investigatory commission as a shameful abdication of the government’s moral responsibility to the 9/11 families, and they understood that failing to investigate would impair the nation’s ability to remedy the failures that made 9/11 possible.

We are at a similar juncture regarding this government’s responsibility to investigate apparent crimes in conjunction with the “war on terror.”  Just as Beverly Eckert and the 9/11 families were told that looking backward would harm the nation, we are being told that looking back at alleged crimes of the Bush administration will undermine the unity we need to solve the many serious problems our country faces.

But it is precisely the failure to look back that will gravely harm our nation in the long run.  It is likely that other acts of terror will be committed against the United States and that a future administration, perhaps even this one, will feel enormous pressure to subvert the law again.  If we refuse now to look at our government’s past illegal acts in the belief that our society is too fragile, we will — in setting that precedent — make it even harder for a future administration to resist pressure to break the law.  We will also undermine the ability of successive administrations to hold government lawbreakers accountable.

Beverly Eckert shunned the impulse in some quarters to make someone “pay for every human accident.”  But, for her, the magnitude of 9/11 made understanding what went wrong imperative so that we could learn how to prevent another similar catastrophe.  In examining the “war on terror,” we must make a similar distinction between mistaken policy judgments and serious crimes.  Authorizing torture is and was a crime, and, as Rep. John Conyers and others have noted, we must thoroughly understand how our government came to do it and the full scope of its consequences, in order to make clear our commitment to preventing its use in the future.

When it comes to upholding the law, we can’t keep saying next time we’ll really mean it.  Each successive kicking of the can down the road makes it more unlikely we will ever have the will to effectively punish and deter these kinds of crimes.  Take a lesson from Beverly Eckert and call your Senators today.  Tell them we must not give a pass either to ourselves or to policymakers who authorized illegal acts.  Looking the other way now means giving a green light to future abuses.  We need a thorough and impartial investigation of what has been done in our name over the past 8 years.