The reason we must keep the torture issue alive is not to exact a small measure of comeuppance from the Bush administration zealots who bent the law till it screamed, but to alter the course of history.

Thus the filing of disciplinary complaints a few days ago against 12 Bush administration lawyers, who crafted the quasi-legal justifications that made waterboarding a household word, has significance well beyond the case for their disbarment. This action, taken by a coalition of citizen organizations — from the ACLU and Vets for Peace to the Libertarian Party of West Virginia, 200 groups in total, claiming a membership of more than a million people — represents, as I see it, American citizens’ furthest reach of patriotic sanity.

The Bush sins are unoriginal. We’ve always done torture. We’ve always been at war with a dehumanized (and usually dark-skinned) other, whom we have simultaneously attempted to kill and, in our armed righteousness, “save.”

The cocky Bush boys were different only in their open pursuit of this agenda. They had no need for nuanced, bipartisan hypocrisy and flaunted the shadow ops of empire as perfectly legitimate tools of government. With the declaration of an endless war on terror and much of the media on their side, they almost succeeded in legitimizing the premise that the commander-in-chief and his designated agents are beyond all law, and ushering in a strange new American oligarchy.

This effort collapsed of its own hubris, as we all know, and now Hope and Change, the Bobbsey Twins of the Democratic Party, skip merrily through the wreckage, disavowing the obvious cruelties of the last eight years and urging us to “move forward” — while the extra-legal pursuit of America’s strategic interests, as defined by the defense establishment, retreats quietly to the background.

Uh, excuse us, Mr. President. The mandate you’ve been given is a little bigger than that, to the regret (I fear) of the Washington establishment. We want to purge the Bush era from the national soul. We want the words “never again” to hum with meaning. We want a new relationship with the world and we want our “strategic interests” to line up with our ideals, not merely because it’s right but because it’s the only way we’ll ever be secure. And for this to happen, we have to look squarely at the truth of who we are and who we have always been.

The failure of the Bush administration to remake America — and the fact that the crimes of its attempt to do so are indelibly part of the public record — present us with the best opportunity we’ve ever had to confront our national flaws, at least those that flow from the bete noir known as American exceptionalism, and begin making substantive changes. All that’s lacking right now is the will. Believe me, it won’t come from the top.

“There’s a vise grip on D.C.,” said Kevin Zeese, executive director of Voters for Peace and a leader in the effort to make Bush officials accountable for trying to circumvent both the U.S. Constitution and international law in order to legitimize torture. The Justice Department has sat on it for five years; Congress is paralyzed by its own complicity; and President Obama lacks the leverage to buck the defense establishment even if he has the inclination (and it’s not clear he does).

We won’t take the country back all at once, but we have to start somewhere. And it begins with accountability. This is why I applaud the coalition’s filing of complaints with state bar licensing boards against these dirty dozen Bush administration attorneys: John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Stephen Bradbury, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff, Alice Fisher, William Haynes II, Douglas Feith, Michael Mukasey, Timothy Flanigan and David Addington. In addition, the coalition is calling for impeachment proceedings against Bybee, now a sitting federal judge.

I don’t know how much of the truth will ever come out, in a way that cannot be ignored (think Germany, think South Africa), but my hope is that we begin a process that gets at all of it, that pries open every secret grave: the CIA torture research of the 1950s; the Phoenix Program of the Vietnam era; the overthrow of the governments of Iran, Guatemala and Chile; the torture training at the School of the Americas; the Reagan era complicity with the thug regimes of Central America; and so much more.

These are all products of American exceptionalism, the belief that our brutality is always benign. Where once we killed to spread the word of God, we now kill and torture in the name of democracy — and in the Bush era, we did both, a fact underscored by the recent revelation that Donald Rumsfeld’s special intelligence memos to Bush had inspirational photos (an American tank at sunset, e.g.) and Bible verses on the cover: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground . . .”

Perhaps the antidote to this self-righteous lunacy is to be found at the coalition Web site: It will happen again if we don’t stand up to it now.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.