I’ve yet to delve into the now infamous Bybee memo, but by most reasonable accounts it is depressing and abhorrent. Whether the United States engaged in systematic torture or not seems somewhat moot to me now. That we are left debating the nuances between ‘cruel and unusual’ (the latter, to some, being okay) disheartens me. When we must concoct excuses for our bizarre and violent measures we have already lost the battle. When the government has to create torture-speak that obfuscates the nastiness we’ve sadly engaged in, then we are already in a darker place than before, by my account.

I’m of mixed feelings on how President Obama has handled this. Releasing these documents, certainly, is the right step. But coupling this with the apparent exoneration of those involved in these practices leaves me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. If it’s something worth debating in the public sphere, is it not, then, something worth prosecuting? This strikes me as a quasi-admitance of guilt; absent of any real repercussions for the guilty actors.

I suppose you could argue that Obama is playing Gerald Ford here. To open up this sore, here and now, may send an already distraught and sullen nation into a further malaise. Much as Ford was tasked with moving the country forward following the Watergate scnadal (so the story goes, anyway), Obama too must navigate the country back to sunnier shores.

Andrew Sullivan often frustrates and confounds me, but as a writer and and an intellect I respect him very, very much. I consider Andrew somewhat of an authority on this awful subject, and it’s a matter that demands clarity and purpose of mission. I believe he deals well with this internal conflict:

Mukasey and Hayden complain that the president has tied the hands of future presidents in this. Yes, he has. What Obama understands is that what is truly vital is that this dark and shameful period not become a workable precedent. It must be repudiated at the very heart of the American political system, and removed like the cancer it is.

The question of prosecution remains. It’s a painful decision. My view is that those who pay the legal price should be, first and foremost, those who authorized this at the highest levels. My view is also that it is a travesty that the Abu Ghraib reservists were prosecuted, and yet far, far more culpable people are claiming it would be too divisive to prosecute them. My view is that no one is above the law, and that when a society based on law prosecutes the powerless and excuses the powerful, it is corroding its own soul.

But my view is also that the president has acted wisely in this. As president in wartime, he knows how wounding it would be to engage in this kind of activity right now. But he has also ensured that a process of transparency continue. A full accounting of all of this – by people from both parties with real power to investigate and report (a 9/11 style commission, in other words) would be a natural next step. There is still much we don’t know. It should take its time to get everything right. Justice can be slow as long as it is guaranteed. From the president, some well-chosen words he clearly wrote himself:

At a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future. The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

Let me repeat the critical two words in that paragraph: Never. Again.