by Amy Ross
(PNS) -- The National Commission on Terrorist Acts Committed Upon the United States has gripped the nation's headlines and, perhaps, its soul. Is the 9/11 panel America's own truth commission?
Truth commissions have appeared all over the world. Societies emerging from a period of bitter and brutal violence establish such commissions as a way to address the past. South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the most widely known example of the genre, but more than 20 truth commissions have sprung up in recent years.
The 9/11 commission is different from other truth commissions in important respects. Unlike commissions in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa, which were established as a part of a regime change, this commission is not an element in a broader negotiated political transition. Still, other countries' attempts to come to terms with a contested past offer useful lessons to guide our understanding as this U.S. "truth commission" pursues its mandate to determine the official explanation for the tragedies of Sept. 11th.
Above all, truth commissions are sites of struggle, where sectors compete to establish the official version of history. Who has the power to determine the truth about the past? How will this "truth" about past atrocities influence power in the future? What does it mean to have such discussions relegated (and possibly confined) to a commission? How do the politics that create such commissions influence their results?
Truth commissions are creatures of compromise. On the one hand, victims of the violence demand to know the details of the deaths of their loved ones, and society at large demands "the truth," on the theory that knowledge will contribute to accountability, and future violence will be prevented. On the other hand, there are those who wish to keep such secrets in their Pandora's Box. A commission is usually established as a compromise between secrecy and openness.
Like these other commissions, the 9/11 commission has been contentious from its conception. The Bush administration initially fought the commission's establishment, reluctantly bowing to the vocal grievances of the victims' families in November 2002. The White House then demonstrated its aversion to openness and accountability by selecting Henry Kissinger as its chairperson.
That Dr. Kissinger, himself the subject of investigations into alleged war crimes, was to serve as the guardian for the public's right to hold its government accountable was a clear message of the administration's hostility to the spirit and mandate of the commission. Critics immediately noted that Kissinger's consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, had lucrative business interests in the Middle East. Hours after he assured a delegation representing the families of the victims of 9/11 that he would disclose all of his business contacts, Kissinger resigned from the commission.
The bi-partisan compositions of such panels are less an indication of national unity than a reflection of the fact that the commission itself is a compromise between sectors competing to control its work.
Other truth commissions have struggled with presidential administrations over access to documents, the conditions under which principals will testify and especially whether such testimony will have judicial consequences.
Truth commissions often take on a life of their own, despite the politics of their birth. They often act like unruly adolescents, intent on demonstrating their independence. Surprise witnesses, shocking revelations, and charges of falsehoods are the stuff of truth commission hearings. In South Africa, poet Antjie Krog observed, "The vocabulary around the Truth Commission has changed from phase to phase, but the word that turns up most often is 'underestimated.'" In Guatemala, the truth commission produced a far stronger report than its creators anticipated, including its determination that the military's violence against the Mayan population constituted genocide.
Ex-terrorism "czar" Richard Clarke's accusations -- that the Bush administration was so obsessed with Iraq that it missed, and continues to miss, the real security threat to America -- has propelled the hearings to center stage. The BBC in March described the panel as "the commission that could bring down Bush." The witnesses, the widows, the press -- all of us -- now brace for the counter-punch by the Bush administration, when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice testifies in public and under oath on April 8.
The 9/11 commission's final report, expected in July, will certainly contain information important for our future security. But the process might be as important as the product. Mark Twain observed that if we never lied, we'd never have to remember anything. As we watch the 9/11 hearings, it is useful to observe what is said, what is secret, and what is so painfully difficult to remember.
April 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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