"When One Person Dies, It's a Tragedy, But When a Million People Die, It's a Statistic." – Josef Stalin, Russia's newest good guy.
Just two days ago, the same day Salon’s Glenn Greenwald wrote about the travesty of justice done to Jose Padilla, fellow Salon blogger Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a semi-whimsical article asking what if the bad guys of film and literature were really the good guys? Obviously, it was an unintentional juxtaposition but it made real world sense when taken in the context of Padilla being denied his day of justice by challenging the constitutionality of his detainment and treatment.
The Obama-appointed judge’s ruling can be boiled down thusly:
“It would simply be too embarrassing for our extraconstitutional evils to be made known to the world. And we can’t very well expect that poor Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and Wolfowitz would willingly interrupt their very lucrative retirement from public service to answer this (sniff) convicted terrorist’s baseless charges.”
Or, as everyone’s favorite Constitutional law blogger succinctly sums it up (emphasis his):
Not only has Padilla (and all other detainees) failed to obtain redress for what was done to them, but worse, they have been entirely denied even the right to have their cases heard in court. That's because the U.S. Government has invented -- and federal courts have dutifully accepted -- a whole slew of legal doctrines which have only one purpose: to insulate the country's most powerful political officials from legal accountability even when they commit the most egregious crimes, such as imprisoning incommunicado and torturing an American citizen arrested and detained on U.S. soil.
How far will it be down that crooked road before we hear the same exact argument being applied to Bradley Manning's own illegal treatment and detention?
But as anyone who’s had one eye open can tell you, there’s something far more insidious than mere impunity going on: It’s impunity plus these same war criminals’ ability to make millions publishing ghost-written books either lying or bragging about their extralegal exploits. If you want an accurate barometer or metric for how astoundingly, shockingly, stupendously corrupt this nation and the world in general is, consider the fact that Padilla, who didn’t order the deaths of 1,000,000 human beings, invade two foreign countries on false pretenses nor loot the national Treasury to bail out oligarchs, is serving 17 years in prison while the actual terrorists are walking free and clear getting seven million dollar book deals and have huge multinational corporations bail them out of charges of bribing Nigerian officials by bribing more Nigerian officials to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars.
(Nigeria’s “Serious Fraud Office” has made a lot of serious money before and since, handily explaining why our spam inboxes are filled with emails from Nigerian bankers. In that respect, the Nigerians rival the always corrupt Justice Department and Securities Exchange Commission that rake in astounding sums each year in “fines”. Every year, enormous sums of money change hands under our noses as if in a massive swap meet where the only commodities that are bought and sold are freedom, respectability and innocence.).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again even though better and more eloquent people had said it before me:
Be anywhere in the vicinity of a theft of $11, spend life in prison, especially if you’re discovered to be black and living down south. Plunder the Treasury and the Fed to the tune of $11 trillion for other white collar criminals and get chased like it’s Sadie Hawkins day by literary agents and publishing executives.
Be anywhere in the vicinity of a murder, spend life in prison until you’re reluctantly released, especially if you’re found to be black and living down south. Order the deaths of well over 1,000,000 Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, etc., well, it's a statistic, at best.
This sense of entitlement and the inevitable impunity of old white Republican men offends me on every conceivable level and in every way imaginable: As a human being, as a liberal, as an American, as a writer in his own right. And a thinking person can’t walk away from this Mt. Everest-sized pile of bullshit without coming to the conclusion that a Republican Party membership card doubles as a Get Out of Jail Free card unless one is unlucky enough to be left holding the bag when their number comes up in the lottery.
Jose Padilla, a gang-banger and a terrorist wannabe, was guilty of bad judgment, nothing more. The SCOTUS was about to hear his case years ago when the DOJ suddenly downgraded to charges that were far less severe but still serious enough to land him in prison for 17 years without actually hurting anyone or planning anything substantial. Once the charges were downgraded, the SCOTUS no longer wanted to hear his argument, calling it “moot.”
Over two years ago, it was so easy to blame everything on George W. Bush because much of this happened on his watch: 9/11; Katrina; Padilla’s post-Soviet show trial; warrantless wiretapping; extraordinary rendition; torture; illegal detention; suspension of habeus corpus; the illegal invasion of other countries with the aid of ginned-up prewar intelligence.
We liberals mercilessly raked Bush and the Reichstag-on-the-Potomac over the coals year after year and had a lot of savage, bitter fun doing it.
Then we elected Obama.
Then we waited for change.
We’re still waiting for that change that was announced on the campaign trail.
Then we began hearing that the Obama administration decided it wasn’t a good idea to show us those tapes and pictures of us torturing innocent brown people.
Then we began hearing he needed a little Bushian surge in Afghanistan which, as with Iraq in 2007, resulted in more US troops than ever getting killed.
Then we heard that closing down Gitmo wasn’t such a good idea, after all.
Then we heard that having terrorism trials in civilian courts also wasn’t such a good idea, after all.
Then we heard the Obama administration pushed for Phase Two of the TARP bailout.
Then we heard that he began undermining unions with the help of his rat on a leash, Stephen Rattner.
Then we began hearing that a public option in a health care bill wasn’t such a “big fucking deal”, after all.
Then we heard about lobbyists infesting the Treasury and the rest of the government like lice in a WWI trench.
Then we heard that the Obama administration actually ordered hits on US citizens without any due process whatsoever.
Then we heard that the Obama administration, with the help of the Republican Party, actually strong-armed the Spanish government into crying “¡Tio!” and dropping a probe into Bush-era torture policies.
If nothing else, this rotten, corrupt Obama administration had proven it doesn’t matter which party is in charge. That sometimes evil agendas are thrust onto the next guy in line which means that no admission of illegality whatsoever can ever be admitted.
And this doubly hurts when one remembers that our President was a Constitutional law professor in a simpler, more law-abiding life.
And when this band of criminals flees public service for greener pastures, literary agents and publishing executives will flock to them and we’ll be treated to faux tell-alls and heavily-edited, ghostwritten “memoirs” archly standing up for its own record and concluding with, “Hey, I tried, I failed, I’m out. Why are you crying to me about this?”
They will get $100,000 a pop on the rubber chicken circuit while America descends even further into a nation of shopkeepers and temp agency serfs while the next power structure sweeps their own unique war crimes under the rug in the Oval Office.
Or, as Stalin may’ve said, “If one person loses his job, it’s a tragedy. If 1,000,000 lose their jobs, it’s a statistic.”
A reader recently wrote to me in an email,
Maybe I'd understand the catharsis explanation if any of those shows featured, say, Lloyd Blankfein getting the treatment. I might have missed the episode where Jack made Angelo Mozillo beg for mercy. I gotta admit, I would've enjoyed that. The financial sector's been a target-rich environment since before Enron, but somehow popular culture keep making that particular criminal class look like what little boys (mostly) should aspire to membership in. I call fraud on Fight Club and 24 which seem to be inviting bored suburban teens to find their inner sadists as a way to fill that big void where, with a little luck, a soul may someday bloom. Meanwhile, they and everyone they know remain stubbornly blind to the suffering all around them and claim a helplessness that would make MLK blow his own brains out in frustration.
I have an idea. How 'bout somebody write the screenplay for the movie or series where a fictional American population demands and gets a full investigation of a fictional Bush administration. Just change the names, place it "somewhere in a parallel universe" and put it all out there. Is there someone in America's cultural elite who could create such a series? Liberal Hollywood? Anybody? Would America watch? It's fictional so we could even have a scene where Cheney gets waterboarded. Talk about cathartic! Think of the mountains of material available. It would write itself. A similar series could explore Wall Street's evil ways. Instead, we get the occasional documentary that keeps PR departments busy for a few months and gets a dozen asses in a few theater seats before fading into obscurity. Meanwhile, the looting, the killing, the crime spree continues and we entertain ourselves torturing imaginary foreign terrorists. Why is that?
That was in response to a discussion about why some shows and movies have a certain appeal and I mentioned the old standard writer’s answer of catharsis, a device that’s been in use since the days of the ancient Greek tragedians and probably before that.
(A sidebar: The Obama DOJ, at the same time an Obama-appointed federal judge denied Padilla’s day in court, decided to drop its 2+ year-long investigation into mega crook Angelo Mozilo. Indeed, the Obama Justice Department led by do-nothing nonentity Eric Holder has dropped more probes than a proctologist with Parkinson’s.)
But it’s catharsis that’s been inverted to make the bad guys look like the good guys and vice versa. And we can’t bring ourselves to believe that some of our fellow Americans whose names aren’t Jose Padilla or Susan Lindauer deserve to be illegally detained and tortured.
In “liberal” Hollywood that gave us Republican politicians such as Reagan, Eastwood, Jesse Ventura and Arnie, not to mention Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis, Charlton Heston, Dennis Hopper and Chuck Norris, there’s only one bad guy on Wall Street and his name is Gordon Gecko (and even Gecko was allowed to make a comeback). The terrorists are all dark, swarthy Middle Eastern types who always fuck up at the end despite having nukes they don’t have in real life.
The good guys are Jack Bauer and whoever else tortures or kills a frowning Muslim and before we all know it, we’re in that rabbit hole that goes all the way down to China and everything is turned on its head. The Wicked Witch (played by Christine O’Donnell) was just misunderstood and Hannibal Lecter is really the latter day GOP saving the helpless American people (played by Clarice Starling) from the carnivorous pigs of Communism and Socialism.
And it’s not really so much a problem of everyone wearing gray hats but that the white and black hats got switched while the lights were out.