Friday, April 25, 2008

Why Can't He Close the Deal?

Right after Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary, the pundits were busy dissecting the supposed “failure” of Senator Obama. The main question: “Why Can’t Obama Close the Deal?” Which means, given his big lead and his momentum coming out of the February and March primaries, why can’t he finish off Hillary?

The metaphor, of course, suggests that a presidential nomination is some sort of gunfight at the DC corral. But the metaphor notwithstanding, the reason Obama can’t eliminate his rival is simple: it’s called Racism. This nation always has, and arguably always will be the most racist nation on the planet. And by racism, I am talking specifically about racism against African Americans. The other forms of racism—against Asians and Hispanics and Pacific Islanders and East Indians and American Indians—can, and eventually will recede if not disappear. But the fundamental racism against those who were brought here from Africa as slaves, all the Emanicipation Proclamations and voters’ rights acts and affirmative action programs notwithstanding, persists to this day. It persists in patterns of living, it persists in patterns of education, it persists in the degree of punishment for crime, it persists in longstanding, deep-seated attitudes that are as American as apple pie.

Barack Obama thought he could transcend all this. He thought that his half-white background, his distinguished record at America’s most prestigious university, his stunning ability to speak the language of white folks better than they can themselves speak it, would neutralize all this. He thought that by not exploiting his blackness to garner votes, he could rise above petty racial politics and disarm the racists he must have known still existed in droves. And in a certain sense, and with a younger, more educated electorate, he has succeeded in this. At least partly.

Sadly, he ran into middle America. And middle Americans, not to mention southern and western Americans, have by no means risen above their instinctive racism. Which is to say, their resentment that some uppity Harvard-educated black man—and the one percent doctrine still holds for most Americans, i.e. if you’ve got even one percent African in your genes, you’re black—could actually lay claim to the American throne heretofore reserved for not just whites, but whites of a certain northern European background and skin tone. Preferably with names of only one syllable: Bush, Gore; or maybe two: Clinton, Johnson, Carter, Nixon. But Obama. Lord almighty, how could the Whitest of Houses contain a trisyllabic, fear-evoking name like that?

The proof of this, if proof is needed, lies in the numbers. Hillary Clinton has won every large state with a strong rural or powerful working-class population: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and California (large parts of which derive, ultimately, from southern states.) They are also states that harbor immigrants and their children—those who have always been able to derive some comfort from the fact that, though they may be low on the class totem pole, at least they can always look down upon that population which remains permanently below them. To have a representative of that population now lay claim to the highest office in the land is simply too much to bear. He must be brought down. And if Hillary fails to knock him off his horse, we can bet that the Republicans—whose entire winning strategy, from at least the time of Nixon, has been predicated on winning these very same rural and working-class southern and Midwestern voters—will prove only too eager to play their favorite election game, race baiting. Think George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads. Think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.”

All this gives the lie to the constant protestations by American conservatives of their patriotic veneration for our founding documents: the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Declaration’s ringing phrase that “all men are created equal.” For when it comes to the privacy of the presidential voting booth, the phrase that really counts is the add-on by Orwell in Animal Farm:
“…but some are more equal than others.”

Anything that challenges, in a fundamental way, that “more equal” status will be met with savagery. And, as we have seen with the Jeremiah Wright ads, it already has.

To be sure, hope springs eternal. America could still right itself, redeem itself. But at this point, it seems to me, ‘closing the deal’ is going to take a miracle.

Lawrence DiStasi

addendum, 4/26/08:
I saw Rev. Jeremiah Wright on Bill Moyers’ Journal last night. First of all, he struck me as an admirable figure—intelligent, passionate, and totally dedicated to his improving his people’s welfare (not to mention the fact that, unlike the Bush administration’s chicken hawks, this man served his country as a Marine for many years before becoming a pastor). Part of that dedication takes the form of his sermons, which educate his congregants about the truth of their past, and the truth of their country’s past. It’s an education that more white people should attend to. Then perhaps, they might not react to Wright’s passionate utterances—the 9/11 chickens coming home to roost; god damn America, etc.—with such condemnation. They might come to realize that though he sometimes lets his rhetoric go over the top, in its essentials Wright’s analysis of the African American condition, as well as the U.S. role in spreading misery both at home and around the globe, is spot on. America has gone around the world acting as if it can dominate and exploit every other nation and its people. It has assassinated or brought down democratically elected leaders in Chile, Iran, Iraq, Panama, Guatemala and elsewhere. It has bombed and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents along the way, most recently in Iraq. This is what Wright meant by “chickens coming home to roost.” It is what he meant when he said “God damn America,” because for anyone who believes in a god, and that god’s commitment to justice, the statement would have to be credited. Perhaps that’s why it raised such a storm: those who found it offensive may have sensed the justice within it, and found the logical consequences of such divine justice too awful to contemplate. And so, like all who find the truth too mighty to bear, they choose to cling to their illusions and condemn the messenger. Which tactic might work for a while, might work to keep Obama in the Senate for a few more years and consign his pastor to the outer fringes, but it won’t work forever. Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to face those chickens.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Concentration of Evil

The more I read about torture by United States agents—CIA operatives, military special forces, hired mercenaries, and military police—the more unsettling the whole sordid situation becomes. The information now at hand is simply unassailable: the United States government consciously set out, after the attacks of 9/11, to “take off the gloves” when dealing with prisoners who might possibly have information about al Quaeda or the Taliban or anyone else in the Arab/Muslim world. Using techniques that had been around for years, some for centuries, some updated specifically for those likely to be captured in the current “war” on terror, intelligence agents determined that they could employ just about any method to extract information. They were aided and abetted and indeed prodded to do so by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and through him, by their commanders. The Secretary of Defense was in turn given the protection of the best legal “minds” in the White House and the Department of Justice, who issued a series of now-famous memos justifying virtually all means of gathering intelligence from captives, most of whom were placed in a category that voided the protections normally due them as prisoners.

All this took place in an atmosphere in which the United States President, George W. Bush, had promised, right after 9/11, to rid the world of evil—by which he meant the evil promulgated by those terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center.

Instead, what took place was the greatest concentration of evil in the history of the American presidency. Consider who was in that White House. George W. Bush, from the moment he took office, indeed, before he even took office, demonstrated that morals simply did not apply to him. He could piously proclaim the virtues of military service, and remain AWOL from even the minimal duty he was obligated to perform in the Air National Guard. He could inveigh against the so-called Axis of Evil, and at the same time authorize to his staff virtually any measures in pursuing revenge: “any barriers in your way, they are gone.” He could preach about the bestial nature of the terrorists who had attacked our “civilized” values, and at the same time rebuff anyone—this time the Secretary of Defense, no nervous Nellie himself—who protested that retaliatory action could encounter certain legal obstacles:

“I don’t care what the international lawyers say,” brayed the President. “We are going to kick some ass.”

It was this climate created by the President, that led directly to the horrors at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba.

But the president was not alone. Smirking quietly but malevolently behind him and beside him always was his president of vice, Richard Cheney. Cheney is that lovely man who once gave the finger in the Senate to a democrat who thwarted him, Senator Patrick Leahy, mouthing presidentially: “Go fuck yourself.” He’s that sporting duck hunter who famously shot his best friend in the face. He’s that zealot who pushed the concept of the unitary presidency—the notion that no law can constrain a president in time of war—to the point that, with the war on terror scheduled to last indefinitely, absolute presidential power becomes indefinite as well. Cheney is also the man in whose office the lawyer David Addington reigns—the one browbeating other white house lawyers to immunize the president and all his men from their crimes.

Then, of course, there were the other ethically-challenged legal eagles: Alberto Gonzalez, who had to resign from his Attorney General post in shame; John Yoo, who coined the term “quaint” to describe the Geneva Conventions, thus making their protections moot; and a host of others dedicated to removing all constraints on the torture of captives so long as the Decider in Chief gave torture his imprimatur. And he did. And they did. And the evil festered and suppurated and spread around the globe. And the White House, and all it touched, became a black house of horrors.

How to explain this? How to explain such a concentration of evil in one place at one time? No one really knows. Perhaps one can only look at it poetically: those who preach the gospel of absolute good and absolute evil, as George Bush has since taking office, as the conservatives have since forever—it is their prime article of faith—must ultimately practice what they preach. They must finally be caught up in the dualism to which they subscribe. For it is in the nature of dualism to be convertible: white easily shades into black, hot inevitably becomes cold, good cannot help but be infected by, and in the end defined by evil.

So it is in the Bush White House. Paint it and sanitize it and bleach it as they will, they can never hide what they have become and what it has become: a white house turned black by, inhabited by demons.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Here's to You, John Yoo

First, let’s get some facts straight. Attorney John Yoo was an assistant to Attorney General John Ashcroft, working in the Office of Legal Counsel under his boss, Jay Bybee, during George Bush's first term. This office is supposed to advise all the departments of government on the legality or illegality of their actions. The attorneys work, in the final analysis, not for the President or any of his subordinates, but for the American people. They are obliged to render opinions that are, to put it mildly, legal, according to U.S. and international law.

Second, let’s look at what John Yoo did and why he did it.

To begin with, he essentially argued, in a series of memos, that the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution has no bearing on the President of the United States during wartime. Neither the 5th Amendment’s due process clauses nor the 8th Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment apply to aliens in foreign countries, and even if they did, Yoo maintained, the President is not bound by them. Essentially, this means that the President’s power trumps both the Constitution and the federal statutes that constitute U.S. Law—specifically, any that would constrain his power to find and/or torture those he deems ‘enemies.’ This means that the President can also thumb his nose at foreign laws and treaties, for if he cannot be constrained by U.S. Law, he certainly cannot be constrained by treaties with other nations, such as the Geneva Conventions, even though normally and legally they have the force of the Constitution itself. No matter; the President, wrote Yoo, is “free to override all such laws and treaties at his discretion.” In sum: John Yoo argued that the President has unlimited authority to order war crimes against enemy combatants captured on foreign soil, so long as he decides that such orders are necessary to the nation’s “defense.”

All this is breathtaking enough. What’s worse is that in defending these memos, John Yoo has actually said that they confer on the President the power, if he chooses to use it, to torture children. In a January 2006 interview with Notre Dame professor and international human rights scholar Doug Cassel, Yoo argued that there is no law that could prevent the President from ordering the torture of even the child of a suspect. Here is the conversation:

Cassel: If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?
Yoo: No treaty.
Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.
Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.
(see article by Philip Watts,

Of course, we can surmise, the President would always have a “good” reason for crushing a child’s testicles.

So let’s get specific. Let’s take a look at one of the allegedly toothless treaties that John Yoo was referring to—the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment—which the United States signed. Here is what it says:

“The term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession…No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (cited by Anthony Piel, “A Primer on the Law of Torture,”, 11/5/07)

Anyone convicted of such crimes can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty. Piel goes on to say that not only is the United States bound by this law, the President cannot grant immunity from its provisions: “The US government crafted, promoted, adopted, signed and ratified the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which therefore automatically becomes the “supreme law of the land,” pursuant to the US Constitution. No enabling legislation is required to give effect to these basic principles of law.”

For a lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department to argue otherwise is to essentially argue that the President and all those under him can break the law with impunity. But Yoo not only did this—in direct violation of his legal ethics. He also argued for the immunity of those who followed his memos and broke any such laws. Here is what Yoo writes in another Memo, (as noted by Glenn Greenwald in “John Yoo’s War Crimes,” Salon, April 2, 2008):

"If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions."

So there it is. Not only 'could we argue' that the President is above all law prohibiting torture, both domestic and international, so are those Americans (CIA agents, military police and/or interrogators, civilian contractors) who follow his orders and torture or abuse their captives. So are those who command them—the generals, the admirals, the secretaries of defense and war and so on up the chain.

This last part is really the point. We have been given the impression, not least by Yoo himself, that he was trying to formulate difficult policy in the critical and dangerous new conditions created by 9/11, and that government officials were pressing him and his office for guidance on how they should conduct interrogations, how they should treat the dangerous “terrorists” they were capturing. This turns out to be a smokescreen. In fact, as Scott Horton has recently noted in “Yoo Two,” (Harper’s Magazine, April 3, 2008), there were two series of memos, one in August 2002, and one in March 2003. The memos are similar in that they “were issued as part of an actual plan to induce individuals to commit criminal acts by ensuring that their crimes would never be investigated or prosecuted.” Horton calls this effort a “criminal enterprise,” because “Under the standards of U.S. v Altstoetter, it was reasonably foreseeable that the issuance of these memoranda would result in serious harm, including assault, torture, and death, to protected persons in the custody of the United States. Accordingly, each of the actors, including the memoranda writers, is criminally liable.”

This was the “need” to which John Yoo was responding. As a lawyer and professor of United States law, he knew full well that what he was advocating would make those who followed its dictates liable to prosecution for war crimes. So did others in government, and that was the real “crisis” at hand. Naval officers had seen what was happening to “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo under the authority of Yoo’s earlier memo, and had relayed it to Alberto Mora, the general counsel for the Navy in the Pentagon. These practices, along with other questionable techniques authorized by Donald Rumsfeld, including waterboarding, led decent military lawyers to vehemently protest what was going on. These were military lawyers who knew about torture and knew about the consequences for U.S. military personnel if it became known worldwide that the United States was engaging in such practices. When the legal counsel at the Pentagon, William Haynes, began wilting under enormous pressure from such lawyers, he recommended to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that the torture procedures should stop. (see Horton, cited above, and Jane Mayer, “The Memo,” New Yorker Magazine, 2/27/2006.)

Unfortunately for the military, the chicken hawks were in charge. Rumsfeld took his case to the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, among others. He needed legal justification for torture, and military lawyers knew too much to give it to him. The political hacks in the Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo and his boss Jay Bybee chief among them, had no such qualms. Yoo knew nothing about the military, but he had “read lots of books.” And so he crafted his torture-justifying memos. And those memos were relayed to zealots like Secretary Rumsfeld and his commander at Guantanamo, General Geoffrey Miller. Miller implemented the 'more creative' techniques at Gitmo, was subsequently sent to Abu Ghraib to “gitmoize” that sadly tragic place, and the rest is history (including the death of the so-called “Ice Man” and god knows how many more).

As Scott Horton puts it, Yoo created these memos “as a roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it.” The roadmap worked. The only sad sacks punished for the scandals at Abu Ghraib have been, as always, the underlings, the so-called “bad apples” in an otherwise pristine barrel, Pvt. Lynndie England, Sgt. Chip Frederick, Cpl. Charles Graner. The war criminals really responsible for those crimes—Yoo and his boss Bybee, Donald Rumseld, Richard Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington, Alberto Gonzalez, General Geoffrey Miller, George Tenet and President George W. Bush, among others—have so far gotten off scott-free.

Perhaps they are all laughing privately amongst themselves. Then again, perhaps not. Though they may, like John Yoo (now safely, and to my mind scandalously, welcomed back to his academic post at Boalt School of Law, UC Berkeley) continue to defend their actions as necessary in a time of war, perhaps they should also remember that the conventions against torture specifically state that “no exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification for torture.” Perhaps they should also remember what Anthony Piel, cited above, reminds us:

“…there is no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

So here’s to you, John Yoo. You’ve served your masters well, and duly collected your due. Although, it may be, you’ll yet see another turn of the screw.

Lawrence DiStasi