After having written Collective Innocence, I grew worried that I was becoming a touch radical in my views about how as a nation, we Americans allow ourselves to view the world in black and white, good and evil, and thereby justify, rationalize or overlook our own dubious acts both at home and abroad. Then I read the news about how the U.S. was purposefully silent after our Afghan ally hid its own war crimes. But is that so surprising?
After European colonization throughout the Middle East, the U.S. consistently supported repressive regimes (or the continuation of European dominance) in subversion of local grass roots democratic and social liberalization (including womens’ rights) for the sole purpose of hindering the spread of Soviet communism. Ironically, we now criticize that which we promoted — essentially dictatorships and theocracies — without ever acknowledging our share of the responsibility. We contrast Israel’s democracy with the tyranny in Syria, Iran and Sadam’s Iraq, yet we poured millions of dollars into Musharraf’s Pakistan since 9/11. We are huge financiers of Egypt and are best buddies with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
. . . Let’s just quickly describe in the most dispassionate terms, as few of euphemisms, as possible, where we are and what has happened over the last eight years. We have a law in place that says it is a felony offense punishable by five years in prison or a $10,000 fine to eavesdrop on American citizens without warrants. We have laws in place that say that it is a felony punishable by decades in prison to subject detainees in our custody to treatment that violates the Geneva Conventions or that is inhumane or coercive.
We know that the president and his top aides have violated these laws. The facts are indisputable that they’ve done so. And yet as a country, as a political class, we’re deciding basically in unison that the president and our highest political officials are free to break the most serious laws that we have, that our citizens have enacted, with complete impunity, without consequences, without being held accountable under the law.
And when you juxtapose that with the fact that we are a country that has probably the most merciless criminal justice system on the planet when it comes to ordinary Americans. We imprison more of our population than any country in the world. We have less than five percent of the world’s population. And yet 25 percent almost of prisoners worldwide are inside the United States.
What you have is a two-tiered system of justice where ordinary Americans are subjected to the most merciless criminal justice system in the world. They break the law. The full weight of the criminal justice system comes crashing down upon them. But our political class, the same elites who have imposed that incredibly harsh framework on ordinary Americans, have essentially exempted themselves and the leaders of that political class from the law.
They have license to break the law. That’s what we’re deciding now as we say George Bush and his top advisors shouldn’t be investigated let alone prosecuted for the laws that we know that they’ve broken. And I can’t think of anything more damaging to our country because the rule of law is the lynchpin of everything we have.
It’s almost as if by holding our leaders to a different standard than we do our citizens, we strive to collectively protect our national innocence. Admitting that President Bush or Dick Cheney committed human rights abuses would be to say that there are limits to which, as a people, we can act in pursuit of our “way of life” — no matter how unsustainable and consumption addictive it may be.