Glenn Greenwald, the long-time Salon.com columnist (whose move to the Guardian earlier this month was briefly overshadowed by the hiring — and firing — of right-wing extremist Joshua Treviño), has broken away from the establishment media pack by challenging the US government’s gross violations of civil liberties, and by occasionally breaking the taboo on scrutinizing US aid to Israel.
Greenwald’s most recent book, With Justice and Liberty for Some, demonstrates structural injustice in the US: “how the law is used to destroy equality and protect the powerful,” as the book’s subtitle spells out. There is a dialectic relationship, Greenwald contends, between the private law enjoyed by the country’s most wealthy and politically powerful, and the burgeoning incarceration of the poor and powerless.
This “elite immunity,” as Greenwald calls it, dates back to the Nixon administration, when the disgraced president resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, during which it became clear that “serious criminality had pervaded the upper reaches of government” (18). Instead of making sure criminals were held accountable, Nixon’s “hand-picked” successor Gerald Ford told the public that the nation must look forward, not backward — that applying the rule of law to those in high office would be the country’s undoing.
And as Greenwald demonstrates throughout his book, the rhetoric of “looking forwards, not backwards” has been used by every administration since to protect the shared interests of the ruling class.
No prosecutions for torture regime
It has been no different under the current president, elected on the promise of hope and change.
Holding George W. Bush administration figures accountable for the worldwide torture regime would prove divisive, Barack Obama said once he came into office, contradicting his campaign promises. The failure of Obama’s Department of Justice to prosecute those responsible, and its efforts to suppress “virtually every investigation of Bush crimes” (51), demonstrates that a certain class of people are confidently above the law.
Instead of spending their days in prison cells for ordering the use of interrogation “techniques” that the US considers “to be criminal and to constitute torture — when committed by other nations” (171), Bush officials “with direct involvement in the torture regime now enjoy high-level positions in Obama’s administration” (206).
And so it will be with Obama administration figures once their tenure expires, despite its authorization of the killing of US citizens without charge or due process and other deadly abuses of executive power.
Retroactive immunity for corporate crimes
The “license to lawbreak” is also enjoyed by major corporations, to great profit. In the chapter “Immunity in the Private Sector,” Greenwald shows how the “melding of public and private forces now characterizes most areas of government, and has resulted in the creation of a single large, self-protecting entity” (53-54).
To illustrate this, Greenwald recounts how the telecom industry was able to buy off members of a Democrat-majority Congress to pass a bill offering retroactive immunity for the industry’s role in widespread illegal spying on US citizens during the Bush administration — in other words, rewriting the law to sanction corporate crime against the American public.
Greenwald recounts that just weeks after the bill was signed into law, delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver were given tote bags branded with the logo of corporate sponsor AT&T. “The omnipresence of AT&T was a refreshingly, if not intentionally, honest expression of the Democrats’ true allegiance” (98), writes Greenwald with characteristic deadpan irony.
When Greenwald and others attempted to attend a “lavish party” thrown by AT&T to reward conservative Blue Dog House Democrats for their vote on the bill, they were shepherded away from the entrance by police. As Greenwald remarks, those who dictate the laws “cavort” with those who write them, “while completely prohibiting the public from having any access to and knowledge of — let alone involvement in — what they are doing” (99).
While the telecom amnesty “was given by an act of Congress and thus had some legal pretense to it,” the Obama administration’s executive order to bail out Wall Street “represents a whole new level of lawlessness,” Greenwald argues in the chapter “Too Big to Jail” (104).
The government transferred “$70 billion in taxpayer money to the very banks that spawned the crisis” (105), allowing the financial industry to reap record profits, and encouraging even greater risks that could once again bring the world economy crashing down.
Congress rewrote the law once more to provide retroactive immunity to corporate offenders. This time it was to provide cover to the bankers for what one financial analyst called “the biggest fraud in the history of the capital markets” (138): the “foreclosing on the homes of millions of Americans rapidly and without resistance” by “misleading courts into forcibly transferring people’s property to these banks when they had no legal right to it” (137-138).
Lessons for Palestine activists
Meanwhile, the least powerful, particularly the poor and racial minorities, are at the bottom of the “two-tiered system of justice” in the US (222), which “now imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, both per capita and in absolute terms” (223). And as the US prison system is privatized, there is a profit incentive to jail more citizens for longer periods of time for “trivial offenses” (225), resulting in a “rigged game of show trials” with a predetermined outcome.
Subservient media, skewered throughout Greenwald’s book, and the marginalization of the poor and racial minorities, particularly Muslims, means that there is little outrage over the unjust status quo. But, as Greenwald cautions, “abuses of power rarely, if ever, remain confined to these demonized groups” (266).
While no answer is given as to why “elite immunity” is so entrenched today rather than in previous periods of US history, Greenwald’s book soberly demonstrates how the law is not a great equalizer but a weapon wielded without mercy by the powerful. This is useful reading for the Palestine solidarity movement in the US, to understand our own state’s system of injustice, and to connect rights abuses in Palestine with our struggles in the United States and elsewhere.
Israel flouts international law and destroys Palestinian homes, emboldened by US military aid and diplomatic cover. Meanwhile, the law in the US is rewritten to protect the banks that fraudulently threw people out of their homes and into the street. And someone is profiting from both.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.