This past week I read Glenn Greenwald’s book “With Liberty and Justice for Some,” a scathing attack on the devolution of basic rule of law in the United States, which has accelerated enormously under the Bush 43 and Obama administrations. Greenwald pointed to former President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon as the watershed moment for elite immunity to prosecution in America. Things only got worse from there as elites in both government and the private sector were granted retroactive immunity for “violating the privacy rights of their customers and committing clear felonies during George W. Bush’s administration (64). Not only are most cases of complaints about warrantless wiretapping and other kinds of government spying on its own citizens totally ignored, those that go to court are almost always doomed. The plaintiffs in such cases are ordinary Americans without access to millions of dollars to pay for top lawyers. The defendants, the telecom companies that assist the government in its illegal acts, have access not only to expensive lawyers, but also to the law itself. Elites in the banking industry can expect the same preferential treatment, because many of them were once in government, and will probably continue to move back and forth between the private and public sectors. Though Greenwald sees deregulation of the financial sector as the ultimate evil created by this too-cozy relationship, I see a more clear connection between “the political class’s loyalty and subservience to Wall Street” and the bailouts of big banks we’ve seen in the past few years.
But even Wall Street and the big telecoms aren’t as removed from basic justice under the law as members of the past two administrations. The Bush 43 administration authorized torture for suspected terrorists despite the fact that the methods they used were clear violations of both federal and international law. President Obama has shamelessly shielded Bush and his advisors from any kind of prosecution by saying that the torture perpetrated by the Bush regime is a state secret, and therefore too sensitive for the courts to hear. And both Bush and Obama have blatantly ignored the Bill of Rights by demanding the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens and anyone else suspected of terrorism, without charging them with a crime.
Greenwald’s book presents a frightening picture of how those in our government and their well-connected friends manage to stay out of legal hot water by rewriting the law for themselves. This situation is dangerous for the average American, who has no such privilege. In fact, the United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its people than any other country (that includes Russia, China, Rwanda, Cuba…). When the average person in America risks jail time for possession of small quantities of marijuana while the rich and powerful enjoy total immunity for felonies like torture, it’s time to reexamine our national identity and remind ourselves of the importance of equality under the law.