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The Justice Deficit


My wife and I were getting ready to watch a spaghetti western Friday evening (specifically, Sergio Leone’s “My Name Is Nobody,” the Henry Fonda-Terence Hill masterpiece from 1973). A last check of the headlines suggested that something at least equally entertaining was happening at that moment in Congress. We turned to C-Span. Sure enough, the House of Representatives, a spaghetti debating club on its best days (congressmen’s rhetoric being generally thin, their motives stringy and their intellect al dente), had gone smack down. The name-calling was flying. The lies were dueling. The shame was sticking to everyone. Why? Because one of their most respected conservative members had suggested that it was time to redeploy America’s collective head out of Iraq’s sands.

John P. Murtha is barely a Democrat. Elected to the House in 1974 in a conservative district held by Republicans going back to 1936, he’s a Republican’s Democrat — farther to the right on many issues, including abortion, flag-desecration and the death penalty, than moderate Republicans. Republican presidents going back to Ronald Reagan have used him to sway Democrats their way. So, when he speaks, he’s like John Houseman in the old E.F. Hutton commercials: The House listens.

Last week, Murtha pulled a Fulbright — as in William Fulbright, the Arkansas Democrat of the 1950s and ’60s whose book, the “Arrogance of Power,” had been partly inspired by another president deceiving him into voting in favor of a war resolution on false pretenses: “Many Senators who accepted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution without question might well not have done so,” he wrote, “had they foreseen that it would subsequently be interpreted as a sweeping Congressional endorsement for the conduct of a large-scale war in Asia.” It is beginning to dawn on a few members of Congress, three years too late, that they, too, were deceived into endorsing the Iraqi crusade, although the deception was self-inflicted. It was no mystery even in 2003 that the Bush administration was a kitchen-cabinet full of half-baked chefs glazing facts, cooking books, icing doubters and boiling dissenters alive. Yet Congress chose to swallow the administration’s words like some factoid from Mount Sina! i: Thou Shalt Not Question.

In an epic 6,500-word story on Sunday, the Los Angeles Times described the extent to which the CIA based its entire “proof” that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons on a low-level engineer who’d graduated last in his class, been fired from his government job in Baghdad in 1995, drove a taxi, was accused of a sex crime, escaped to Germany in 1999 and fabricated his way to all-expenses-paid asylum by pretending to have seen bio-weapons operations firsthand — all lies the German secret service, the United Nations and some of the CIA’s own analysts discredited before the war. But then-CIA director George Tenet wasn’t interested in conveying the internal debates to the president, nor was the president, who wanted his war, interested in hearing them. And Congress didn’t ask questions when handed the gruel the Bush administration called evidence.

Embarrassing? No. Lawmakers getting caught smoking crack in a Vegas whorehouse is embarrassing. Lawmakers endorsing a counterfeit war that has killed almost 2,100 American soldiers and more than 30,000 Iraqis, that will soon have cost more than the entirety of the Vietnam War, that has no end in sight and that keeps being defended, by most of those very lawmakers, as a battle protecting American freedom and birthing Iraqi democracy (the two biggest lies of this poison-ridden war) — those things aren’t embarrassing; they’re criminal. Yet, the most revolting aspect of Friday evening’s display in Congress was both parties’ wrangle over saving face or piling on the white-man’s-burden chauvinism. And passing on the bill to the public.

The Iraq war has cost $250 billion, so far. It’s costing us $6 billion a month in military spending alone. The budget deficit is running at more than $300 billion. On the same day that representatives called war-doubters “cowards” looking to “cut and run,” here’s what the same House gave America by means of a Thanksgiving turkey, in the name of that war: a $746 million cut in food stamps and tighter eligibility rules for families and immigrants; a $4.9 billion cut in child support enforcement programs; an $8.9 billion cut in Medicaid, the health-care program for children and the poor, including rules that will make it more difficult for the elderly to qualify for nursing home coverage; and a $14 billion cut in student aid programs. That’s over the next five years. On top of that, the House approved a two-year extension of a lavish tax cut for stock market investors. Then it went on vacation. Speaking of cutting and running.

This is what passes for democracy. This is what we’re exporting. No wonder no one is buying. America’s justice-deficit is now its grossest domestic product.

PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer and author of Candide’s Notebooks . Reach him at



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