Torturers, looters and oligarchs let their freak flags fly

The people who variously collapsed the economy, bought the political process and brought torture into polite society are tired of your disrespect and they’re not afraid to let you know it.

The latest in the parade of former Bush administration officials and CIA personnel to come in from the cold the suburbs and either defend or brag about their roles in the Bush torture regimen is psychologist James Mitchell, the prominent member of the helping professions who is credited with having designed the procedures used by the CIA to torture prisoners and is supposed to have tortured at least one prisoner himself. In an interview with The Guardian, Mitchell said “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.” Mitchell follows in the footsteps of former Vice President Dick Cheney and others who say the times required torture and the results justify it, and anyway it wasn’t torture.

In some circumstances, in some countries, admitting to having not just devised torture procedures but practicing them as well would land one in hot water. In the US, however, torturers have a very prominent advocate for letting bygones be bygones: the current President. In 2009, when he ordered the release of the documents the Bush administration’s legal team wrote to retroactively and prospectively justify torture, President Obama said that “[i]n releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.”

Casual students of history may recognize the President’s statement as closely resembling what came to be known as the Nuremberg Defense, in which Nazi officials and German armed forces personnel claimed they were not responsible for atrocities they had committed because they were only following orders. Like the Bush regime, the Nazis had constructed a legal and legislative framework within which those atrocities were permitted. Unlike the prosecutors and judges at the Nuremberg Trials, President Obama not only accepted the Nuremberg Defense as legitimate, but preemptively invoked it on behalf of the torturers in order, one suspects, to avoid both messy trials and setting a precedent for holding former and future-former executive branch officials accountable for crimes committed in office.

Of course it isn’t only the Nazis whose positions were validated by the President. We have a more recent example as well.

“If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law. Otherwise they’re in an impossible position.”

That of course is the great Richard Nixon, explaining why it must be that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Let’s review.

  1. Nazis: “We were only following orders.”
  2. Nixon: “[W]hen the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
  3. Obama: “Works for me.”
  4. George Bush, Dick Cheney, James Mitchell at al: “Hooray!”

pilloryAn accessory after the fact is “someone who assists another 1) who has committed a felony, 2) after the person has committed the felony, 3) with knowledge that the person committed the felony, and 4) with the intent to help the person avoid arrest or punishment.” Ring any bells, Mr. President?

I don’t know why President Obama decided to go all anti-Nuremberg on the torture problem. Maybe he wanted to put our long national nightmare behind us (by finally acknowledging the justice of the great Richard Nixon’s cause). Maybe he found a horse’s head in his bed the first morning he woke up in the White House. Whatever his motivation, I’m fairly sure that the most recent spate of appearances by the “we did it and we’re proud” crowd are the result of concerns about potential fallout from the Senate report on the torture program. President Obama isn’t likely to okay prosecuting anybody, but he won’t be President forever no matter what the Birchers say; the next president might be more willing to spike some heads on the White House fence. It’s never too early to plan for contingencies in the uncertain world of a war criminal, especially when the law of the land requires investigating credible allegations of torture — such as those offered by candid admissions of it in the press — and prosecuting the perpetrators if the evidence warrants.

Meanwhile, some guys at Princeton University, one of the schools where oligarchs-in-training and their factotums-in-training go for some of their training, have authored a study demonstrating that government policy in the United States reflects what rich people want in the way of government policy far more often than it reflects what not rich people want. Conversely, what rich people don’t want is way less likely to happen than what everybody else doesn’t want. Shocking news, I know, but nevertheless helpful to find in print.

In a delightful coincidence, this news about the sale of our political system broke just a few days before the New York Times published a story about some baby oligarchs getting together at the White House to place their orders for the remainder of President Obama’s term. (This story appears in the Fashion & Style section of the Times, indicating, I guess, that a White House is the hot new fashion accessory.)

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The meeting was closed to the press so we don’t know what kind of shots they were actually doing — nothing vulgar, to be sure — but the organizers on the Junior Oligarch League side of it asked one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune to write a little something up; The Times, never an institution to avoid sucking up, obligingly published it. The story presents a much more attractive portrait of the oligarchy than has been done lately by several older members of it.

Tom Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s early billionaires, penned a hilariously whiny screed appropriately published by the most demented of institutional press op-ed pages, the Wall Street Journal’s. Progressive Kristallnacht Coming? compared the plight of America’s billionaires and hundred-millionaires with that of German Jews as the Nazis consolidated their power.

Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Although memorable not least for the reference to San Francisco’s “number-one celebrity,” who turns out to be Perkins’s ex-wife, it’s the uncannily perceptive parallel Perkins draws between oppressed German Jews a few years shy of the ovens and the persecuted American billionaires who control much of the nation’s wealth and its political processes that really makes the piece. Most people would not have spotted that.

Perkins later issued a non-apology apology for comparing himself and other fantastically rich people to victims of genocide but not for sticking up for his oppressed kind. Chose the wrong words, sorry if you were offended but, still, nevertheless.

That was back in January. More recently it was one of the interchangeable slubberdegullions known as the Brothers Koch — Charles Koch, in this instance — who took to the Journal’s pages earlier this month with a whinging lament about being attacked solely because he’s on a mission to rescue America from collectivists. I suppose it makes sense that in San Francisco, Perkins is worried about Nazis and in whatever hellhole Koch hails from, it’s communists who represent the real danger. “I’m trying to save you from yourselves. Why can’t you love me?”

We have no evidence that any of our oligarchs have engaged in systematic programs of torture in the war criminal sense, although when you get people with that much money and that little conscience and such a great disengagement from everyday lives, you never really know. What we do know is that billionaires such as the Koch brothers have systematically poisoned the air and water and soil of a great many more people than the CIA tortured, while simultaneously disenfranchising them. So when Charles Koch says “I have devoted most of my life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives,” he means to whatever extent your desire to improve your life by breathing clean air or drinking clean water doesn’t interfere with his desire to improve his life by adding more billions to his bottom line.

Recall, if you will, that engaging the principles that enable people to improve their lives was also the subject of the baby billionaires party at the White House. Sure, they’re cute and cuddly now but when they get a bit older they too will rip your lungs out for fun and profit.

Relatively few of the people who move money around for billionaires are billionaires themselves, but they feel the lash of public opinion even more keenly. The whining from bankers and others who incurred criticism — not jail time, not physical punishment, in all but the very rarest of cases not even a fine out of pocket; just criticism — for having crashed the economy was astonishing in volume and duration. After being made whole and held harmless, these pissant motherfuckers actually threatened to tank the economy again if the peasants and politicians didn’t zip it. “Why should we invest the money you gave us in anything that might help anybody but us if you’re going to keep saying mean things,” they cried. Their moment of grief has passed now. They are pilloried less and less in print and never physically in the public square. They’ve won again. In a just world these people would be driven from their homes and then pay to serve as menials to the formerly dispossessed but, like the torturers, they have a friend in the White House.

It’s good to have a friend in the White House. You don’t.

2 thoughts on “Torturers, looters and oligarchs let their freak flags fly”

  1. “Our long national nightmare is over” was, of course, Gerald Ford’s expression of relief that Nixon and associates were out of there and their public humiliation ought to be enough to let us get on with such projects as “whip inflation now.” Obama may well have had something similar in mind as he slowly went about abandoning Iraq to its fate, trying to stop the American bleeding in Afghanistan (never mind about the Afghans), getting the Affordable Care Act passed and signed and through the murky labyrinth of the Supreme Court and turned over to Kathleen Sebellius for the lurching launch of websites that American ingenuity is supposed to be really good at creating.

    As for Princeton’s study, it is always comforting to have what we all knew validated by the intellectuals in academia. I think you should be more grateful.

    As to the whiny hypocrisy of the Richie Riches in Silicon Valley, I doubt this surprises you.

    Otherwise, how are you? You’ve been off the grid for awhile.

    1. Jack, sorry, not checking in here very often, obviously. Not so much off the grid as off BTC, and unusually occupied elsewhere. I’m generally okay.

      “Long national nightmare” … Ford pardoned Nixon, and then there was this steady validation by presidents from Reagan forward of the nasty things Nixon did. So he’s not only pardoned but retroactively if tacitly honored by the institutionalization of his precepts. There’s not much daylight between what Nixon said about illegality and what Obama said about it. Flunkies have to believe that what the president tells them to do is legal, and if they say they believe then they’re off the hook. I only wish he had lived long enough to see it. A contemporary Frost-Nixon interview would be something, were they both alive and in possession of their faculties.

      The Princeton study strikes me as a potentially useful tool. I don’t mean to denigrate it. Lots of people seem determined to exaggerate or otherwise misinterpret the findings, though.

      Stupidly rich people have people who are paid to take pity on them; no need to bring it to the press. I’m not surprised, just remarking on the stupidity and gall. And if billionaires are the new Jews, then shouldn’t Jews be the new billionaires? I want my money.

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