The Purloined Constitution

The wonderful thing about big lies is their kettle logic. The term, of  course, derives from the story of the man who offered several mutually  incompatible excuses for returning his friend’s kettle in damaged  condition: “It broke too easily.” “It was like that when I got it.” “I  improved it for you.” “I never borrowed the thing.” Et cetera. A big lie  is not just a beautiful creation because the bigger you make it the more  firmly people believe in it, but also because you can tell other big  lies to make the same point and the lies don’t have to make any sense in  combination.

One big lie in circulation at the moment is that we don’t know whether Bush, Cheney, Rummy, et alia, committed any actual crimes. Some people  believe this, but they believe it in the sense in which one “believes  in” a big lie, as one “believes in” a religion. If people actually  believed it as an ordinary fact, then they would have to either advocate  investigating the topic or determine that it simply didn’t matter  whether the Cheney-Bush gang had committed crimes or not. Here’s Barack  Obama: “Now, if I found out that there were high officials who  knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those  crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our  Constitution is nobody above the law — and I think that’s roughly how I  would look at it.” He believes in the idea that there is doubt, but he’s  not ready to either pursue the matter or to claim it’s unimportant.

A second big lie is that the toughest deterrence possible against future  crimes is produced by simply learning the facts about past crimes. This  lie has been spread by countless sources. Here’s Joe Biden’s version:  “Personally I would like to know exactly what happened because — more  of a past is prologue kind of thing. I would like to make sure that it  doesn’t happen again. Torture is going to be a major issue. Torture is  going to be a major issue. … And so all that’s going to be reviewed.” If  people believed this in the ordinary sense of belief, they would have to  support replacing all police, prosecutors, and jailers with  videographers and reporters. And they would have to advocate  investigating any crimes they didn’t already know about but leaving  alone any crimes they already knew about — the ones they’d already  determined they didn’t want to see happen again. Because you can’t very  well want to deter the repetition of something until you’ve already  learned what it was.

A third big lie is that the appropriate way to handle crises created by  criminal activity is to ignore the criminality and focus on solving the  crises. This is described by thousands of its advocates as “looking  forward.” Here’s Obama: “I would not want my first term consumed by what  was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt  because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.” And  here’s Biden: “The questions of whether or not a criminal act has been  committed…is something the Justice Department decides….That’s a decision  I’d look to the Justice Department to make.” While stating he was “not  ruling it in and not ruling it out,” Biden underscored that he and Obama  are “focusing on the future.” “I think we should be looking forward, not  backwards.” If this passed the smell test, people would smash store  windows, calmly make off with expensive goods and coolly advise the cops  to focus on the future replacement of the window glass.

A fourth big lie is so huge that it’s buried invisibly in the preceding  paragraph. It is the claim that Democrats need to work with Republicans.  The Democrats are an overwhelming majority in terms of public support  with significant majorities in both houses of Congress and possession of  the White House. If Democrats did not want Republican senators to be  able to filibuster any bills, they would take one or more of the  following steps: change the number of votes required for a filibuster,  appoint one or more Republican senators from states with Democratic  governors to cabinet positions or ambassadorships (aside from the  Secretary of Labor nominee, it’s not as if they could be much worse than  the current cabinet selections), or give Washington, D.C., voting  representation in both houses of Congress.

Edgar Allen Poe told of a purloined letter effectively hidden by  conspicuously placing it in plain sight. Our Constitution and the very  idea of the rule of law now find themselves in a similar situation.  There are variations, of course, on the idea of the rule of law. Often  the judicial and penal systems are viewed as purely backward looking.  For example, many people favor the death penalty in full awareness that  it lowers, rather than increasing, deterrence of future crimes and  eliminates the possibility of restitution or restoration. But an ethical  system of criminal punishment, which indeed looks forward, still deals  in every single case with crimes that have happened in the past. To  ignore crimes that are in the past is to ignore all crimes, and  therefore to permit all crimes in the future.

The corporate punditocracy puts on a show of wondering whether crimes  have been committed, while Bush and Cheney are on videotape confessing  to authorizing torture, Bush is on videotape confessing to violating  FISA, Bush is on videotape being warned about Hurricane Katrina and on  videotape swearing he was not, the evidence that Bush and Cheney lied  the nation into an illegal war is already public and beyond dispute, and at the same time that  great minds ponder whether the water torture is really torture the  common Bush-Cheney technique of beating the shit out of someone and  breaking their bones is being employed against a guy who threw his shoes  at the president.

The purloinedness of Bush’s violations of law was developed in a manner that would have  astounded Poe when Bush ordered the creation of “legal opinions”  supporting the violation of laws, such as those against torture, engaged  in torturing, signed into law new bills redundantly recriminalizing  torture, wrote “signing statements” erasing the new laws as just signed,  and went right on torturing without anyone’s gaze drifting for an  instant from a sharp focus on the latest bread and circuses. If Bush now  takes the unprecedented step of pardoning the crimes he authorized, the  big lie that this is neither unprecedented nor in conflict with  maintaining any system of laws will seize us in its death grip.

But the bigger the lies, the harder they fall. The idea that there is  some sort of doubt about Bush and Cheney’s criminal records is  collapsing rapidly. Support for the idea of actually enforcing laws is  spreading as swiftly as at any time since Moses came off the mountaintop. And our next president is  going to run hard up against the fact that failure to prosecute  violations of treaties is itself a criminal violation of those same  treaties. Protecting a predecessor is going to mean endangering, not  protecting, yourself. Paradoxical but true, and only the truth has a  chance of setting us free.

DAVID SWANSON is the author of the upcoming book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. He can be reached at:






David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was awarded the 2018 Peace Prize by the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation. Longer bio and photos and videos here. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook, and sign up for: