After several months of delay due to the legal concerns of his publisher American author Robert Coover published the novel The Public Burning in 1977. This novel is an often humorous and consistently biting commentary on the state of the US empire and the psyche that maintains it. It features (among others) Richard Nixon as the protagonist and narrator with occasional appearances from Uncle Sam as a Methuselahian superhero and Dwight Eisenhower as the latest incarnation of the American everyman. The entire tale occurs in the week leading up to the execution of accused atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and ends the night of their execution.
Because it is fiction, Coover has moved the location of the execution to Times Square. The setting is possibly the most important aspect of the novel in that it portrays the execution not as the ultimate realization of justice but as a piece of national theater. It is a cathartic political moment designed to prove that the United States of America will not be undone by Communists and other anti-American misfits, nor will it succumb to those who disagree with the natural order of things under American capitalism. This show is as much for the American people as it is for the rest of the world. No self-doubt is to be acknowledged when it comes to the American destiny. Coover’s Uncle Sam character tells then Vice President Nixon as much in a vision: "We ain’t going up to Times Square just to fill the statutorial law…," says Uncle Sam. "This is to be a consecration, a new charter of the moral and social order of the Western World…."
When I heard that Obama’s Justice Department was going to try at least five of the alleged 9-11 suspects in New York City I couldn’t help but think of Coover’s novel. In the same way that the Rosenberg execution was a piece of political theatre designed to insure the US public that Washington had the over-hyped communist threat under control, this trial serves the purpose of convincing that same public that the terrorist threat is also being taken care of. During the trial and aftermath of the Rosenbergs, the US military was fighting a war in Korea and occupying a good portion of the world. Involvement in Vietnam on the side of the French was increasing and the ultra-right was relishing the publicity it had obtained thanks to Joe McCarthy and other anti-Communist demagogues. Nowadays, the US military is fighting a war in Afghanistan, occupying Iraq and maintaining military bases around the world. The ultra-right is up to its usual publicity-seeking inanities and the economy is stumbling. It’s time for a unifying event. Since (thankfully) attacks on the US homeland don’t happen very often, the next best thing to rally the masses might very well be this trial.
Currently, there is a sideshow being whipped up by the rightwing that insists that the defendants should all be tried in military courts. Most of those not among that political minority disagree. The right has nothing to fear, however. Despite all the backslapping statements calling Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision a triumph for the American way of justice, justice is not really the issue in these upcoming trials. No, what’s at stake here for the empire reaches deeper than that. As far as the empire’s guardians are concerned, these trials are about the very nature of the American future. Convictions (and most likely executions of the condemned) are essential to the continuation of the project. Doubt must be purged. Naysayers must be silenced. If the defendants are, by some fluke, acquitted, the jury will live in fear of their own countrymen for a long time. The court itself will be an armed camp reminiscent of the prison in Guantanamo where the defendants were held for years without trial. The effects of any torture endured by the defendants will lurk underneath every accusation and piece of evidence presented.
Given that New York is one of the top media capitals in the world, don’t look for a change of venue for these trials. The message here is not in the courtroom proceedings, but in the presentation of those proceedings. The Lady Justitia will be present, but the real force in this courtroom will be Nemesis, the god of vengeance. He has already made a difference, through the fact of the torture used by interrogators on the defendants. Getting the message that confuses justice with vengeance across will be the task of the media circus certain to ensue. The prosecution and their cohorts on the bench are depending on it.
From the trials in Salem to the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs; from the deportations of the anarchists and other radicals during the Palmer Raids of the early twentieth century to the trials of antiwar and black liberation activists in the 1960s and 1970s, the history of the United States is full of these rituals of cleansing. It doesn’t matter if there are any truly guilty among the prosecuted and persecuted. It only matters that the national soul is cleansed and thereby able to begin its mission again–the mission referred to by everyone from John Winthrop in his discourses written on the passage to the new world to every president that ended his addresses with the words God Bless America. The city on the hill is still being built–now on a planetary platform. First, however, we must rid ourselves of those who don’t share our vision of that city but would tear it down. More importantly, we must get rid of the self-doubt among those citizens who think the cost is too high. Vengeance under the cover of justice is just the prescription demanded by Uncle Sam and his saints.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org