by Charles Fink
March 3, 2003
Leo Tolstoy once wrote: "The good cannot seize power, nor retain it; to do this men must love power. And the love of power is inconsistent with goodness; but quite consistent with the very opposite qualities—pride, cunning, cruelty." (1) Along the same lines, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked: "In contemporary America, power increasingly gravitates to those with an almost obsessive desire to win it." (2) And former Attorney General Ramsey Clark: "The people we admire most are the wealthy, the Rockefellers and Morgans, the Bill Gateses and the Donald Trumps. Would any moral person accumulate a billion dollars when there are ten million infants dying of starvation every year?" (3) The point, which is obvious upon reflection, is that people in positions of great wealth and power tend not to be good people. Rather they tend to be greedy, ruthless, power hungry, dishonest, cruel -- in short, evil people. Why? There is a simple explanation for this. People who are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals -- to succeed in business, to accumulate property and wealth, to win political office, to triumph over competitors and rivals -- have a greater chance of success than people who recognize and respect moral boundaries. Good people recognize such boundaries. Evil people do not. In power struggles, therefore, evil people tend to come out on top.
It should not surprise us, then, that George Washington -- the wealthiest man in revolutionary America -- and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders. Or that the most powerful people in American history have been liars, thieves, ethnic cleansers, racists, mass murders. In fact, it is entirely predicable. Not only were Washington and Jefferson slaveholders, so were nearly half the signers of the Declaration of Independence. At the time of his death, Jefferson owned well over two hundred slaves, some of them blood relatives. The land, which now constitutes the territory of the United States, was stolen, under the leadership of various presidents, from American Indians, the Mexicans, the Spanish. The Indians were driven to near extinction. Promises broken. Washington described Indians and wolves as "both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape." (4) Jefferson told his Secretary of War that "if we are ever constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi." (5) In the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson -- another slaveholder -- oversaw the slaughter of eight hundred Creek Indians, including women and children. Body parts were taken as trophies: noses, strips of flesh. Jackson boasted of taking Indian scalps. He also signed the orders to expel the Cherokee Indians from their territory in the Southeast, an expulsion that became known as the "trail of tears" in which eight thousand Indians, half of what remained of the Cherokee nation, were killed. Theodore Roosevelt, whose robust image graces Mount Rushmore, described the lives of American Indians as "a few degrees less meaningful, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts." (6) Not that he would go "so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." (7) It is well known that Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Perhaps less well known: President Warren G. Harding was sworn in as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the Green Room of the White House.
"Lincoln was a master politician," wrote economist Murray Rothbard, "which means that he was a consummate conniver, manipulator, and liar." He was also a mass murderer. "Lincoln wanted Southern civilians to suffer," writes Thomas J. DiLorenzo in his analysis of the Civil War, "which required him to abandon international law and the U.S. military’s own code as he began to wage total war. And it was total war waged against fellow citizens -- mostly women and children and old men -- not an invading army." One example of Lincoln’s war on civilians was "the policy, adopted almost from the very beginning, of retaliating against Confederate attacks by holding randomly chosen civilians as hostages, sometimes shooting them and sometimes burning their houses or their entire towns to the ground." Another example was the navel blockade imposed by Lincoln on coastal ports and inland waterways. "So severe was the blockade of Southern ports that even drugs and medicines were on Lincoln’s list of items that could not be imported into the Southern states." This guaranteed suffering and death for untold numbers of Southern civilians. The reality veiled by the mythology of the Civil War is that Abraham Lincoln, by means of Federal troops, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the South (including 50,000 civilians), crippled tens of thousands of others, razed homes, towns, and cities, and crushed political opposition in the North by imprisoning without trial or even formal charges thousands of dissidents, anti-war protesters, priests, preachers, state legislators, newspaper editors -- including, ironically, the grandson of Francis Scott Key, composer of "The Star Spangled Banner" -- suppressing free elections, and closing down dozens of newspapers that were critical of his war policies. And why? According to some historians, for no higher reason than consolidating the power of the Federal government. (8)
President Truman murdered about 150,000 innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- men, woman, children, infants, the elderly, even some American prisoners of war. He also lied about it. "Sixteen hours ago," he told the world, "an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base." (9) Hiroshima was decidedly not an army base, no more than Miami or Los Angeles is an army base, but decent people would be horrified by the truth. (In this same statement, I might mention, Truman described the atomic bomb as "the greatest achievement of organized science in history." What does this tell us about Truman’s values?) (10)
Eisenhower lied about American spy planes flying missions over the Soviet Union. Kennedy lied about the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion. Nixon lied about the bombing of Cambodia. The Eisenhower administration backed the revolution in Guatemala that ousted the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, and launched a decades-long period of repression, bloodshed, and civil war for the Guatemalan people. 200,000 people were killed before a fragile peace was declared in 1996. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presided over the mass murder that was the Vietnam War. 1.7 million killed, according to some estimates (perhaps 3 million, according to others), including 600,000 noncombatants.
President Regan murdered peasants and government officials in Nicaragua, and lied about it. In 1984, Nicaragua reported that since Ronald Reagan took office, 910 of their officials had been assassinated and 8,000 civilians killed. The attacks on peasants were particularly brutal. "Groups of civilians, including woman and children, were burned, dismembered, blinded, and beheaded." (11)
In retaliation for a terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque, President Reagan ordered a military strike against Libya and its leader, Muammar Khadafi. Bombs rained down on Tripoli, killing perhaps a hundred people, mostly civilians, including Khadafi’s adopted infant daughter. Khadafi himself was unharmed.
In 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush ordered an invasion of Panama to capture a reputed drug lord, Manuel Noriega. The bombing raids on Panama City ignited a firestorm in a poor neighborhood, killing thousands of people. In total, somewhere between 2,500 -- according to the United Nations -- and 4,000 -- according to the Association of the Dead of December 20 -- Panamanians were killed, the vast majority innocent civilians. 20,000 people lost their homes. At least fifteen mass graves have been identified scattered across Panama containing hundreds, possibly thousands of bodies. Among the excavated remains: Children. People shot, execution style, in the back of the head. The elderly. (12)
In retaliation for terrorist attacks on American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in which hundreds of people, including twelve Americans, were killed, President Clinton ordered bombing raids on targets in Africa and Afghanistan. One target was the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Clinton apparently lied about the incident, claiming, in the absence of supporting evidence, that the plant was used to manufacture chemical weapons. It was not. It did supply about 50 percent of Sudan’s medicine, and about 90 percent of the most critical drugs. The Al Shifa plant was destroyed, and as a result untold numbers of innocent people all over Africa -- tens of thousands, according to some estimates -- were condemned to die from treatable diseases.
And these are just a few examples. We tend to look upon the rich and powerful with respect, even reverence. Not only is such deference undeserved, as I have argued, it is also dangerous; it clouds our moral vision and prevents us from seeing how power is often abused. (One example, which I will not explore further, is the ease with which Christians make excuses for the Old Testament God -- a being who, according to the testimony of the Bible, committed, endorsed, or tolerated genocide, transgenerational punishment, total war, slavery, incest, the slaughter of first-born children, the execution of homosexuals, and animal sacrifice.)
A few months ago I read an article in the New York Times by a Cambodian refugee, Youk Chhang: "In 1977," he begins, "my oldest sister, who had two little daughters, was accused of stealing rice from the collective kitchen. Despite her repeated denials, the Khmer Rouge cadre refused to believe her, and to prove his allegation, he took a knife and cut open her stomach. My sister’s stomach was empty, and she died." He goes on: "Even if God can forgive that Khmer Rouge cadre, the man’s responsibility as a human being for what he did to my sister remains. Her murder was just one of millions of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, crimes that remain unjudged and unpunished. The Khmer Rouge have gotten away with murder." (13) From 1975 to 1979, under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed nearly two million people in Cambodia through a combination of mass executions, starvation, and slave-labor practices. For his role in all this, Pol Pot was sentenced to house arrest.
And this is hardly unusual. Ironically, those who are the least responsible for war -- specifically, children and other civilians -- are the principal victims of war -- on average, over 90 percent of those killed in war are innocent people -- while those who are directly responsible for war -- people in leadership roles -- are unlikely to pay any price for the slaughter. While thousands of innocent people have been killed in the invasion of Afghanistan -- about 4,000 according to some estimates -- what of the senior officials of Al Qaeda, or of the Taliban? On December 20, 2001, the New York Times reported: "Virtually the entire top leadership of the Taliban has survived the American bombing and eluded capture by American-backed Afghan forces." To date, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are unknown. In fact, locating the people actually responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11 is no longer even a priority. "I wouldn’t call [getting bin Laden] a prime mission," said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers. (14)
If the police, in pursuit of an accused drug dealer, destroyed an American neighborhood and killed thousands of innocent people, the public would demand that those who planned and organized the operation be held accountable for the massacre. Yet, when George Herbert Walker Bush conducted a military invasion of Panama, ostensibly for the purpose of arresting Manuel Noriega, killing thousands of innocent people in the process, there was no public outcry. Indeed, Bush was applauded for his bold action. (The original pretext for his son’s invasion of Afghanistan, in which thousands of innocent people were killed, was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The apple does not fall very far from the tree.) This was due, in part, to slanted media coverage of the event. Americans might have reacted differently if they had been fully informed about the carnage. But it goes deeper than that. People simply don’t demand that authorities play by the same rules as everyone else. And that is the problem.
If the aim of conventional war is mass murder, it has an impressive record; but if its aim is to deter people in positions of authority from abusing their power, or to protect ordinary people from such abuses, or to hold those who create wars responsible for their actions -- if it has, in short, some constructive, humane purpose in world affairs, its record is much less impressive. One could not ask for a clearer statement of the official point of view than the following, contained in the Church Committee report on CIA-sponsored assassination attempts (italics added): "Once methods of coercion and violence are chosen, the probability of loss of life is always present. There is, however, a significant difference between a cold-blooded, targeted, intentional killing of an individual foreign leader and other forms of intervening in the affairs of foreign nations." (15) There is, in other words, a significant difference between killing one foreign leader and the wholesale slaughter of ordinary people -- the implication being that selective assassination is more reprehensible than mass murder, at least from the standpoint of state officials.
Or consider the following passage from a New York Times article on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic:
Lawyers, human rights workers and victims of the Yugoslav wars arrived here today on the eve of Slobodan Milosevic’s trial, hailing a new era of accountability for war crimes despite anger about other suspects who are still free.
Mr. Milosevic, the former leader of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia, will be the first head of state to face charges so grave: genocide for the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with crimes against humanity and violations of the Geneva conventions for the wars in Croatia and Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia.
Experts say that Tuesday’s trial underscores a significant broadening of international criminal justice: that even heads of state can be tried for war crimes, including those that took place inside their own borders. This trend has not pleased everyone: the United States has balked at supporting a permanent international criminal court, for fear its own officials may someday be tried there. (16)
Another Times article reads:
With a trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet increasingly unlikely here, victims of the Chilean military’s 17-year dictatorship are now pressing legal actions in both Chilean and American courts against Henry A. Kissinger and other Nixon administration officials who supported plots to overthrow Salvador Allende Gossens, the Socialist president, in the early 1970’s….
In another action, human rights lawyers here have filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Kissinger and other American officials, accusing them of helping organize the covert regional program of political repression called Operation Condor. As part of that plan, right-wing military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay coordinated efforts throughout the 1970’s to kidnap and kill hundreds of their exiled political opponents.
Argentina has also begun an investigation into American support for and involvement in Operation Condor. A judge there, Rodolfo Cancioba Corral, has said he regards Mr. Kissinger as a potential "defendant or suspect." But lawyers say it is virtually impossible for a foreign court to compel former American officials to answer a summons.
During a visit by Mr. Kissinger to France last year, for instance, a judge there sent police officers to his Paris hotel to serve him with a request to answer questions about American involvement in the Chilean coup, in which French citizens also disappeared. But Mr. Kissinger refused to respond to the subpoena, referred the matter to the State Department, and flew on to Italy. (17)
Another Times article:
Israel challenged the United Nations today by once again blocking a proposed fact-finding mission to examine fighting earlier this month in the Jenin refugee camp, prompting Secretary General Kofi Annan to consider disbanding the investigative team.
Israeli officials said they preferred the short-term cost in world opinion of resisting the United Nations to the long-term risk of possibly exposing the army to war-crimes trials in what they feared would be a biased investigation.
As Palestinian officials charged a cover-up, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, a former general who has fought in all of Israel’s wars, invoked his own service as a soldier in declaring that he would protect Israel’s troops now.
"No effort to doubt us or put us on an international trial will prevail," Mr. Sharon declared.
The Bush administration, with characteristic moral clarity, is willing to simply drop the matter:
The United States originated the United Nations resolution that set up the fact-finding mission in mid-April, and gave the inquiry aggressive backing last week. But today, in yet another shift by Washington, the Bush administration offered little more than the wan observation that it could do nothing if Mr. Annan dropped the inquiry.
"We continue to be quite supportive of the idea," said a senior Bush administration official. "But if he decides it isn’t worth the trouble, we’re not going to be able to push it on our own." (18)
Interestingly, the Bush administration can "push it on its own" when it comes to violating international law, but not when it comes to enforcing it.
A story on NPR (June 5, 2002):
Bob Kerrey led a U.S. Navy SEAL team into the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phu in search of a high-level Viet Cong meeting one February night in 1969. But in war things seldom go as planned.
Last year, Kerrey, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, publicly acknowledged that his team mistakenly gunned down more than a dozen women and children in the raid. Recently, the Vietnamese government accused Kerrey of unspecified war crimes in connection with the incident.
It is doubtful whether Kerrey will ever be tried as a war criminal. He will, however, receive royalty checks for the book he has written about his experiences in Vietnam.
If those who benefit from war are unlikely to be held accountable for their actions, as the record seems to indicate, what incentive do authorities have to pursue peaceful, constructive solutions to terrorism, to struggles for independence, to international disputes? On reflection, there is a practical alternative to the "war on terrorism," and this is to hold terrorists accountable for their actions while at the same time protecting the rights of innocent people. Those who support war stand this principle on its head, for war, especially modern war, punishes the innocent rather than the guilty. "Everybody wants to know where Osama bin Laden is. The next question is, who cares?" said one Pentagon official. (19) An amazing statement. Imagine telling a man whose wife has been murdered: "We never found the man who murdered your wife, and probably never will, but we did destroy the neighborhood where he lived, killing lots of innocent people. But who cares?" The sad truth is that this is what the Pentagon is telling the husbands, the wives, the children of the victims of September 11.
A simple concept: holding authorities accountable for their actions. What would this mean? Among other things, it would mean prosecuting Henry Kissinger for his role in the bloody revolt that destroyed the progressive democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and launched a protracted period of misery and repression for the Chilean people. It would mean trying Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright for crimes against humanity for her support of the genocidal sanctions against Iraq. It would mean prosecuting George Herbert Walker Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell as murderers for the bloody invasion of Panama. It would mean trying Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as a war criminal for his part in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982 in which up to 1,800 civilians were killed, as well as for more recent war crimes in Jenin.
Surely, Osama bin Laden and other senior members of Al Qaeda should be held accountable for the deaths of thousands of innocent people in New York and Washington. But by the same token, shouldn’t George W. Bush and other senior members of his administration -- including two seasoned mass murderers, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell -- be held accountable for the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Afghanistan? Or does killing innocent people not count as murder when it is committed by an American president and his supporters -- in a flurry of flag waving, employing the most powerful military in the history of the world -- against nameless, faceless, forgettable people in a foreign land?
Charles K. Fink is a contributor to Alternative Press Review (www.altpr.org), where this article first appeared.
1. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You.
2. Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Little Brown, p.6).
3. From an interview with Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe, p. 580.
4. Quoted in Stephen Shalom’s Imperial Alibis (South End Press, 1992), p.12.
5. Quoted in Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe (Context Books, 2002).
6. Quoted in Howard Kahane’s Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, p. 286.
7. Quoted in Stephen Shalom’s Imperial Alibis, p.13.
8. Quotations from Murray Rothbard, “America’s Two Just Wars: 1776 and 1861,” in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, ed. John Denson (New Brunswick, N. J.: Transaction, 1997), p. 131; and Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln (Prima Publishing, 2002), pp. 178-180.
9. “Harry S. Truman, Statement on the Atomic Bomb, 1945,” in John Mack Faragher (et. al.) Out of Many: A History of the American People, Document Set, Vol. II, pp. 385-6.
10. Ibid, p.386.
11. William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Common Courage Press, 1994), p. 293.
12. See the excellent documentary The Panama Deception, available from Rhino Home Video, from which these facts were gathered.
13. The New York Times, February 14, 2002.
14. Reported in the Asheville Global Report, No. 164, March 7-13, 2002.
15. Quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, p. 555.
16. The New York Times, February 12, 2002.
17. The New York Times, March 28, 2002
18. The New York Times, May 1, 2002.