by John Chuckman
July 31, 2003
"[T]he writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat. He stands for the victims, and the victims change."
-- Graham Greene
Anger over the abuse of power unavoidably drives my views. I can't explain why this should be so, and it doesn't truly matter why. It just is. So you might expect I would be glad to see a tyrant like Saddam Hussein receive even America's idea of justice.
But I'm not.
Apart from knowing that vampires like Pinochet or Amin live in comfort and that the Shah of Iran died receiving every benefit America could bestow, I cannot imagine anything more dangerous than America's establishing an unchallenged right to capture anyone on earth, treating him or her as it pleases - a nightmarish global extension of Israel's horrific practices in the Middle East.
One thinks of the 680 prisoners held in Cuba under no proper legal authority or charges and the vigilante-style justice they face. These people, most or all of them, are guilty of responding only to a call to arms when attacked. Killing soldiers who invade your country is not a crime, and I trust everyone understands the sinister implications of making it a special crime to kill American soldiers who invade countries.
Some of these prisoners come from countries other than Afghanistan. Traditionally, those who volunteer in a foreign cause are not treated as war criminals. The many French who served the American Revolution were not treated that way by Britain.
While America's Puritan descendents tend to view themselves as decent, honest, and obeying the will of God, the world must remember their heritage of obliterating whole small nations of peoples, living off the avails of slavery and near-slavery for centuries, and swallowing up any place regarded as desirable enough (the sad case of Hawaii, seized despite petitions signed by its entire population and ignored by Congress, perhaps being the most flagrant. Note that the very cages holding America's prisoners in Cuba sit on land taken from Cuba).
If America does capture Hussein, would he be tried by the Defense Department in the same fashion as the prisoners in Cuba are to be? Imagine the moral and legal absurdity of Donald Rumsfeld, who shook hands and made deals with Hussein, effectively serving as de facto high-court judge? Perhaps instead, Hussein would be turned over to the small group of unelected men America has set up as a shadow government in Iraq? That certainly sounds reasonable, an ex-ruler being tried by people who gain from his demise?
If some Iraqi betrays Hussein - and blood-money of $25 million in a third-world country is monstrously great temptation - it might prove convenient to treat him as America treated his sons, that is, to murder him under cover of his attempted capture, there being no other explanation for the sons' deaths in a house surrounded by well-armed men and machines.
For some, this undoubtedly is a satisfying prospect, but it would leave many questions unanswered for the rest of us. Then again, leaving those questions unanswered is a powerful motive for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Any semblance of a fair trial would enable Hussein to tell us extremely embarrassing things about these people, and wouldn't he be entitled to call them as hostile witnesses? You begin to see in this why ex-tyrants so rarely face trial.
Even if we grant that America is a fully-functioning democracy, certainly an arguable point with its elections choked by money and its legislators guided by special interests, still when it acts as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan, it behaves little differently than any tyrannous government. No principle supports such action, other than the shabby one of might makes right.
George Bush is not the world's elected leader. Many would add that he is not truly even America's elected leader. How is it justified for a tiny slice of humanity, American active voters, to decide the fate of nations and foreign nationals, to impose their laws and views and prejudices on others? It is not, of course. America's active voters represent roughly one percent of the world population, about the same fraction members of China's Communist party represent out of the population of China.
America's one percent believes it is guided by right, justice, and high principles, but then so do the members of the Communist Party of China.
America's democracy appointing itself sole arbiter of world events has nothing to do with democratic values. It has to do with the abuse of power by a tiny, wealthy minority of the world's population, a ruling class, as viewed from outside, whose ancestors just happened to grab vast chunks of the most productive real estate on earth. But most Americans do not care what the world's view may be, and isn't that attitude on the part of immensely powerful people far more dangerous for the future than anything puny Hussein ever could have done?
Afterward: What do I mean by "even America's idea of justice"?
I include the sense of things that has a President, once a rich and carefree young man known to have abused various drugs without once suffering a significant penalty, spending his political career as governor of Texas gloating over tens of thousands of poor young men imprisoned for the same act. This rich young man also avoided military service during war, not for reasons of conscience or principle, but to continue his carefree ways, later displaying no hesitation ordering others to their deaths.
America is a country that imprisons world-record levels of its poor population while effectively tolerating gigantic corporate swindles. The people who damage millions of others and steal billions never suffer penalties comparable to the poor who steal something paltry.
It is not well understood outside America that if you are poor and are tried for murder in that country, you will either die or spend your life in an extremely harsh prison. Someone rich, under the same circumstances, more often than not, suffers little penalty beyond the cost of an expensive trial.
These and many other comparable circumstances undoubtedly color and distort America's ideas of what is just in the world.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company. He writes frequently for Yellow Times.org and other publications.