Now there you have two things that I never expected to write. How often is Congress right about anything or Stephen Kinzer wrong? Congress wants 9/11 victims’ families to be able to sue Saudi Arabia for its role in those crimes. Kinzer does not.
It’s not that he doesn’t care about victims’ families. It’s not that he’s worried about disturbing relations with the Saudi monarchy (which could perhaps stop selling the United States the fossilized poison it uses to ruin the earth’s climate, or stop buying U.S. weapons and working with the U.S. military to blow up little children in Yemen, or perhaps increase or decrease its support for ISIS depending on which of those options the U.S. makes up its mind to oppose). No, Kinzer’s concern is that if you let one set of criminals be held accountable for their crimes, other criminals might be held accountable for their crimes as well.
Kinzer’s is an argument designed to win over Congress (which doesn’t really answer to rational argumentation) or the President (who already agrees with it). But it’s not an argument that should win over you or me.
“Americans have a right to be furious with some foreign governments,” writes Kinzer. “People in other countries have an equal right to be furious with the United States. We best address that fury not with lawsuits, but by changing the way we approach the world.”
If laws are to “address fury” I’d like to abolish every last one of them, domestic and international, as an embarrassment to our species. In reality, the best laws are powerful tools with which to “change the way we approach the world.” Obamesque “looking forward” — that is, granting immunity to all powerful law breakers and wishing they wouldn’t continue their law breaking — does not work. Neither, of course, does bombing families in Libya or Syria based on the flimsy allegation that someone powerful managed to break a law that happened to be the one law not to ignore that day.
Kinzer’s concern that suing Saudi Arabia could result in law suits against the United States is misguided nationalism. Why does suing Saudi Arabia not bother him? Why does suing the United States bother him? If Saudi Arabia kills large numbers of people, every nonviolent tool at our disposal ought to be used to put an end to that, to deter its repetition, to seek restitution, and to work for reconciliation. And the exact same applies to the U.S. government.
This was the pretense at Nuremberg, that victor’s justice would someday become universal justice, that the people of the United States would want their own government held to the rule of law. This is why 37 thousand U.S. citizens thanked Spain for trying to prosecute U.S. officials for war crimes a few years ago, when the U.S. government had made clear that it would never do so itself. Instead it brought pressure to bear on Spain that shut down the prosecution.
Of course, a country that doesn’t want to be sued (by its own people as well as foreigners) could abide by the rule of law or enforce its treaty obligations itself, as legally required to do anyway. Of what real use is a law that a blatant violator cannot be brought to court over? The UN Charter and the Kellogg-Briand Pact make seven current U.S. wars illegal, plus numerous drone killings if you claim they constitute “war.” They’re illegal as murder is you claim they do not constitute “war.” Kidnapping, torture, spying, sabotaging — these things are crimes. Those instances of these crimes that are in the past should indeed be brought to court in the present, unless the United States sees its way clear to apologizing and making restitution to the satisfaction of the victims.
But here’s the real problem. If disputes could be taken to court, instead of to war, potential terrorists would become potential litigants, and Pentagon propaganda for the next war would become a lawsuit instead. Did the latest “Hitler” really truly use the wrong kind of weapon? Don’t bomb the residents of his capital. Take him to court instead. Take him to arbitration. Take him to a truth and reconciliation commission. Because if you don’t, if you bomb some cities instead, you should have to expect that victims families will be taking you to court.
If U.S. officials find that they must constantly be looking over their shoulders to make sure they aren’t going to be taken to court, they will simply be joining the rest of us who are — horror of horrors! — obliged to comply with every existing law every day of the year.