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Payback Time In Washington?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Sotomayor ruckus, with its senatorial and media back-and-forths about judicial power and racism, is one indicator that Americans like and trust each other less, if possible, than they have since maybe 1861.

Still a stronger indicator is the storm boiling over whether, and how hard, to go after Bush administration officials -- former Vice President Cheney among them -- over what they did to defeat terrorists.

No course of action would make less sense, or point more directly to the truth of the ancient maxim that those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

To his credit, President Obama shows lack of enthusiasm for Holder's proposed maneuver -- hardly surprising in a chief executive fighting hard just to stay in charge of his own domestic agenda. He needs a battle over Bush era intelligence policy the way the viewing public needs another Michael Jackson special.

And yet … !

Here was Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California on Fox News calling for an investigation of news reports that Cheney kept from Congress intelligence about a controversial CIA anti-terrorism initiative. That's on top of other reports that Attorney General Eric Holder may name a special criminal prosecutor to investigate Bush-era interrogation policies.

The un-slaked thirst among Democrats for the blood of some who waged the counter-war on terror -- and kept America completely safe up through the handover of power in January -- is hard to come to grips with. What's in it for the Democrats? The joy of poking Republican hornets to fury? That helps the Democratic agenda? How? Who could think such a thing?

Oh, it's a Matter of Principle, as some say when speaking of Holder's motives. A Matter of Principle to go after public officials for the advice they gave the president? What about the principle that it's unwise to start civil wars when you don't have to?

Why can't Holder see where this thing is going? The destination is a great political toxic dump. He'll poison public discourse. Nobody will talk about Principles; they'll all talk about Payback, as Auden foresaw so many years ago in a great poem: "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return."

"Evil" -- too strong a word? Possibly. Not so strong it doesn't correctly point to what Democrats can expect if they decide to criminalize political disagreement.

The Democrats go after the last Republican administration; the Republicans, once returned to power, as they will be, and maybe very, very soon if the Democrats keep doing the angry second-grader bit, look around for Democrats to go after. Don't we understand how this is how life works, even if it shouldn't?

Speaking of the Sotomayor confirmation, a good question on which to reflect is how we got so divided on this judicial appointment thing. One starts, or should, by looking at Ted Kennedy's bombastic lies -- I said lies, senator -- about Robert Bork: "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters … "

Kennedy's ravings more than ruined the Bork appointment: They ginned up the wars we still fight over the awful things imputed to this nominee or that one, depending on what president happened to nominate him.

Americans, who slaughtered each other on the battlefield less than eight decades after independence, are no society of pious saints and cheek-turners. Americans get mad and mean with the best of them. What the best of Americans have to hope is that their leaders won't crank up the meanness machine save for the most urgent of causes.

The Sotomayor nomination isn't one of those causes. Certainly the Bush White House's post-9/11 strategy for preventing additional murders of innocent Americans qualifies as the oddest of all provocations for a political war of victors against vanquished. If the attorney general indeed goes to war with the Bush White House, the most generous and reasonable response one could make is, "General Holder --- you must have lost your mind."

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