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Morality, Leadership and the Rule of Law

The Water Line

by DENNIS LOO

Part one of a three part series

“The water line is rising and all we do is stand there.
The water line is rising and all we do is stand there.
The water line is rising and all we do is stand there.”

— Sage Francis, The Water Line

When one considers Bush and Cheney’s presidency, the question almost invariably comes up: “Who is to blame for this colossal debacle?” How could Bush and Cheney have been permitted to take office in the first place and remain in office, escaping prosecution and removal through impeachment, when they were repeatedly caught red-handed engaging in acts far in excess of abuse of office: openly flouting the law, pervasive and persistent lies, torture, committing the supreme war crime by invading a country that had not attacked us, treason, feloniously spying on all Americans, uber malfeasance, criminal negligence in the face of Katrina and global warming, and corruption on a staggering scale, with this list only a part of their long, sordid tale?

Most people’s answer to this is: “It’s the American people’s fault.” Americans (apologies to the other Americans of South and Central America) are apathetic or secretly wanted what Bush and Cheney carried out or are just plain ignorant, selfish, materialistic and lazy.

While material comforts do clearly dampen political activity and some Americans are certainly willfully ignorant – I would estimate their numbers at perhaps 15-20% of the population (some of these not merely ignorant but politically reactionary) – and a sizable percentage politically disinterested (disinterest and willful ignorance are not the same thing), the majority are neither willfully ignorant nor reactionary. They are, instead, misled, naïve, poorly informed, and misinformed.

Were it the case that most Americans were simply stupid, selfish and lazy, then it would not be necessary for the mass media and political parties to systematically censor, distort and deceive. They would not need to spend the gigantic sums that they devote to propaganda that they do. Fox News would not have to exist and it wouldn’t have to maintain the laughable pretence that they are “fair and balanced.” Their slogan could be: “We’re biased and so are you.” Bush and Cheney wouldn’t have had to lie about a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. They could have said: “We’re going to invade Iraq and Afghanistan for oil and empire. Yahoo! Let’s go!”

Society as a Caravan

Suppose that you are sitting in your car driving along a long and winding road on the side of a mountain. You are following behind a big SUV caravan that is traveling at 15 miles per hour below the speed limit. There are hundreds of cars behind you as impatient as you to move faster, but you can’t get around the slow-moving SUV caravan in front of you because the center lane divider is a solid-line and there is only one lane going each way. Even if you tried to illegally pass the SUV immediately ahead of you, too many of these black SUVs in the lead are all traveling in close formation for you to squeeze in between them before contra flow traffic would crash headlong into you, killing you instantly. 

Is it your fault or the fault of those behind you that you’re all going too slowly?

If part of the leading SUV caravan were to decide that the whole train of cars were traveling at the wrong speed and that it was going to speed up and leave the other SUVs behind, then an opening would be created into which you and the other trailing cars could accelerate into and eventually leave the slowest SUVs behind.

But if the leading SUVs all decide that they are going to hang together in close formation, then they have effectively created a moving roadblock and doomed the rest of the cars to follow along at a snail’s pace.

The cars trailing impatiently behind this moving SUV caravan roadblock in this metaphor are the American public.

The SUV caravan blocking the way is the equivalent of the Democratic and Republican Parties and the mass media. It doesn’t matter that the last lead SUV driver – George W. Bush – breached nearly every single fundamental principle of national and international law openly. Now there is a different SUV driver – Obama – in front, but he has decided that his differences with Bush are less important than what they have in common.

What Bush and Cheney did while in office was institutionalize, with Congress’ and mass media’s cooperation, a rupture in the nature of governance. While there are different facets to this, the most important was their explicit challenge to the rule of law: they acted on and got away with the principle that all power rests in the President and no law and no body can override that power.

Bush and Cheney did not invent this strategy; they are merely its culmination. No actions, no matter how horrible, unjust, or illegal, were unimaginable for their unfettered White House to engage in, untethered from the law, as long as it was concealed by the fig leaf of “safeguarding” the nation’s security. Their actions and rationales for their actions represent a return to governance pre-Magna Carta: the rule of the king whose word is the law.

Obama could turn out to be the second coming of Christ, but if he doesn’t hold Bush and Cheney accountable for their crimes and violations, then it won’t matter. Obama’s administration would be a respite at best before some future president wipes out all that stands in his/her path because the rule of law will no longer be a barrier to a tyrant who can scare the people into obedience. Bush and Cheney, after all, if they proved nothing else, demonstrated that fear mongering could get them anything and everything they wanted.

What has Obama done, besides introducing complete sentences with dependent clauses into presidential press conferences? He has declared that some of the more obviously egregious and illegal practices under Bush and Cheney will end. Guantanamo will close – eventually. Extraordinary rendition will revert to rendition, the latter a practice engaged in by Bill Clinton. American personnel will no longer personally carry out torture (although Obama has given himself loopholes to permit him to use “enhanced interrogation techniques”). Torture will be carried out in less visible ways principally by non-American personnel, reverting to the standard American practices of dozens of American presidents. The “bad” war of Iraq – still immoral, still unjust, and still illegal – will be scaled back, but not ended for at least years to come, the “good” war of Afghanistan (also immoral, unjust and illegal) stepped up, and unilateral and illegal US missile strikes and ground assaults on and in Pakistan intensified (ditto, ditto, ditto).

Obama’s Justice Department on February 8, 2009 told a federal appeals court that protecting “state secrets” (i.e., their use of torture, rendition and domestic spying) should lead to the dismissal of a lawsuit (Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen) against a Boeing subsidiary by five detainees who were subjected to rendition and torture. By doing so, the “new” Justice Department under Obama and Holder has adopted the old Bush White House’s exact arguments protecting their violations of international law. They have, in other words, adopted the very stance that Obama and other Democrats criticized in Bush when Obama was running for the presidency. (See Glenn Greenwald’s analysis “The 180-degree reversal of Obama’s state secrets position.”)

And on Wednesday February 4, as described by David Swanson:

“Britain’s High Court of Justice ruled evidence in the U.K. civil case of Binyam Mohamed, one of the plaintiffs in the Jeppesen case, must remain secret because of U.S. threats to cut off intelligence sharing. On Saturday Britain’s Telegraph reported that ‘Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning “is very far down the list of things they did."’ On Sunday Britain’s Daily Mail reported that Mohamed ‘was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a “joke” website on how to build a nuclear weapon. … [He] admitted to having read the “instructions” after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.’"

Eric Holder, Leon Panetta and Obama himself have all stated that those who carried out torture under Bush and Cheney will not be investigated or prosecuted because they were “following legal orders.”

Nuremberg, where Nazi and Japanese war criminals were tried, held that “following orders” is no excuse when those orders are to commit crimes against humanity. Holder, Panetta and Obama know this well, but they are engaged in a high-stakes and risky game: attempting to reassure Americans that they are different and better than Bush and Cheney by repeatedly stating that “no one is above the law” and that waterboarding “is torture,” while at the same time assuring the Bush White House’s torturers and thieves that they are safe from prosecution.

This is what Obama means by bipartisanship: maintaining common ground with torturers while diverting the public from demanding and getting real change. Couched as “looking forwards” and “national healing,” this is the same bipartisanship that gave us the Bush regime.

Exactly how “transformative” this Obama White House is does not remain to be seen: it is here for those who allow themselves to see it.

What is at stake now cannot be overstated: it is no less than the survival of the rule of law, civil rights and civil liberties, those very things, in other words, most precious and central to what so many people believe distinguish the U.S. If Obama is serious about “looking forwards” then let him look forwards to what will without any doubt happen if these precedents by Bush and Company aren’t overturned and the perpetrators prosecuted and made an example of.

If the rule of law is replaced by the rule of men, then we as a people will truly be without shelter, stripped of the protections of law, abjectly naked and alone in the face of icy floods, whirlwinds and devastating earthquakes, to be ripped apart or drowned in disasters, natural and man-made, brought on by the predations of tyrants and plunderers.

Most of Washington and the news offices of elites (outside a mere handful of dissenters) refused to say no to what Bush and Cheney were doing when they were doing it, irrespective of the patent illegality of it all. (Note: grumbling and carping don’t count.) These same leaders still think it is unthinkable now to hold Bush and Cheney to account.

They are like the three iconic monkeys who see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil. This unsavory state of affairs only underscores how bankrupt institutional logic is when confronted with dangers from within.

As Sinclair Lewis said in 1935: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible.”

What must be done in the face of this momentous betrayal?

How can the interests of humanity be protected and advanced?

To be continued.

DENNIS LOO is an associate professor of Sociology at Cal-Poly Pomona. He is the co-author of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He can be reached at http://dennisloo.blogspot.com.