On Thursday, I took a train ride up the East Coast from Washington to New York, with some stops along the way. Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark and finally I was back home in Penn Station. It was a familiar trip. But there was something remarkable about this one. At every stop along the way I saw throngs of young people, of all races, but they were high school students for the most part. And everywhere they were wearing T-shirts expressing solidarity with the “Jena 6.”
“This is about justice,” one young woman explained to me in the dining court in Union Station. “It’s about the fight for justice in the South, in Jena, Louisiana, where my people get a different kind of justice from your people.” She was passionate, and a bit miffed that I didn’t know about the “Jena 6.”
The story of the “Jena 6” hasn’t gotten much coverage in America’s mainstream media—or didn’t until that day, when tens of thousands of protestors descended on the town of Jena.
And as I read some accounts of the events that led to this protest, I kept thinking: Tulia! The Tulia 46. While George W. Bush was governor of Texas, 46 people, 40 of them Black–a large part of the town’s Black population–were arrested and charged by a rogue cop in this West Texas town who secured their conviction and incarceration all on the basis of his say-so. It was very quickly established that the cop was a notorious racist and a liar. Nevertheless, most of the Tulia 46 languished in prison and despite rising public cries for Bush to use his authority as governor to reverse a manifest injustice, Bush did absolutely nothing. This was one of the first signs of George W. Bush’s idea of justice.
I have been dealing intensively with questions of justice for my entire life, mostly as an advocate for people overseas. I always knew there were justice problems in America. Every society has them, and try as it may, no society will ever be free of them.
But in my lifetime, I’ve always had the sense that the American government at its highest echelons, whether the administration be Democrat or Republican, stood for justice. The problems were kinks deep in the system: a crooked judge, a prosecutor on a vendetta, a juror on the take, a rotten cop. There might be differences on one policy or another, some engendering passionate debate, but there was agreement on the basics. I never had the sense that the president was twisting the system, or that the Department of Justice had become a tool of political corruption or oppression. In fact, I was proud of the American justice system. Proud to cite it as a model for others. And proud of the principles that it reflected, and the professionalism of those who served in it.
This has changed. All those high school students are right to sound the alarm bell. I won’t make any comments about the “Jena 6” case in particular, but I do believe that our justice system has been dangerously corrupted. And the most worrying source of that corruption is right at the top, George W. Bush, the president and the senior-most crew of advisors he brought into Washington in 2001. Karl Rove, who believes that all institutions of government should be turned to perpetuate the power of the G.O.P.
Bush has systematically taken a sledge hammer to the basic institutions of our legal system. He has used the criminal justice system for partisan games. His Justice Department launched prosecutions against dozens of people around the country not because of any real sense of wrongdoing, but because he considered these people to be a threat to the G.O.P.’s monopoly on power. The case of Governor Siegelman in Alabama is just one case; the Mississippi cases surrounding Oliver Diaz, Paul Minor and others fit the same pattern; as does the Thompson prosecution in Wisconsin; and a good dozen further cases I have examined.
To wield the criminal justice power in such a way is a very great crime. It is an attack against democracy; an act of betrayal of the system Bush swore an oath to uphold.
In fact the critical word that describes this conduct is tyrannical. If we examine Aristotle’s classic definition of what makes a tyrant, found in the Politics, we find that Bush passes each test. While possessed of public authority and therefore accountable to the people, he denies accountability and he cloaks his own conduct in secrecy. Conversely, he refuses to respect the privacy of the common citizen, embarking upon massive invasions of privacy through the introduction of an unlawful warrantless surveillance program that incorporates data mining into the communications of tens of millions of Americans. He doesn’t bother to ask Congress to change the law. He just breaks it. And he lies about it, too.
He contrives foreign wars, launched on consciously false representations. He depletes the nation’s treasury with its cost. And he uses the war as a justification to arrogate to himself still greater powers which he strips away from the people and the other institutions of government.
And when he uses the word “justice,” it sends a shiver up my spine. George Bush has no sense of the meaning of this word. For him it means nothing more than an act of personal vengeance.
But when the Founding Fathers said “justice,” they meant something beautiful and noble. They saw a new society which was marked by a public conception of justice. That is, it would be a society in which every person accepts and appreciates that others similarly accept a series of shared first principles of rights and justice. And they conceived a republic crafted of institutions which were founded on those principles. And lastly, they envisioned a series of principles of justice, which were proclaimed and shared, and shared by society as a whole as a basis for justice. Among these principles is the idea of a government of limited powers, in which the functions of the state, and responsibilities with respect to the creation and maintenance of a justice system are shared equally by the three branches.
This was the Founding Father’s view. But for George W. Bush, this was inconvenient. He preferred a system under which his own personal powers were ascendant, and the notion of public justice receded as a personal “justice” rose in its place. Hence hitherto unthinkable things have happened; indeed, they have become commonplace. American citizens arrested in the United States are locked away with no access to a court on the basis of secret and unchallengeable Presidential “determinations.” Prisoners taken in wartime are stripped of all rights and treated with brutality and wanton cruelty. The President arrogantly proclaims that he is not bound by the law. And for each of these acts Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, even Alexander Hamilton would have the same word: tyrant!
Can it come as any surprise that a man who behaves this way with enemies on a field of battle adopts a similar attitude towards those he reckons his domestic political enemies? America has been slow to recognize the full scope of this abuse, and too quick to credit the claims of Alberto Gonzales and his minions about those who have been charged, tried and often enough convicted in our courts. But the abuses meted out in political prosecutions are even greater assaults on our notion of justice.
Consider this: Governor Siegelman, accused of something which most public integrity prosecutors feel is not a crime in the first place, is sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. That’s the average sentence for a man convicted of a homicide in Alabama. And the judge who sentences him is a “loyal Bushie,” a member of the Executive Committee of the Republican Party, a person with a notorious grudge against him—who was assigned to the case under extremely suspicious circumstances. Or Paul Minor, the principal funder of the Mississippi Democratic Party, likewise convicted of charges which most attorneys consider not to be crimes, who was sentenced to a term of eleven years by another vindictive Republican judge before whom Bush had dangled the prospect of a promotion while the case was pending. The heavy stench of corruption surrounds these cases–corruption not of the accused, but of the persecutors, and it leads, repeatedly, straight into the White House.
And compare this with Scooter Libby, who, unlike Siegelman and Minor, actually did commit a serious crime. He will serve no sentence, thanks to Bush’s intervention—which was clearly timed to block his cooperation with prosecutors looking into further wrongdoing in the White House.
Or consider the cases involving private military contractors accused of murder, assault, torture, rape, extortion, kidnapping and other serious crimes. Not a single case prosecuted. And after an incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater contractors opened fire, leaving twenty-eight civilians dead, what will happen? Don’t hold your breath expecting accountability. There will be none. Why? The Bush Administration tells us it doesn’t have the prosecutorial resources to deal with trivial things like murder, rape, assault and contract fraud involving tens of billions of dollars. All those prosecutorial resources have been diverted to locking up grandmothers in the inner city who file an incorrect voter registration form (and are suspected of being Democrats), Democrats who are guilty of campaign fundraising rule infractions, or who received political donations which are being labelled corrupt. In the mind of these Rovian prosecutors, what is corrupt about the donations is that they were made to Democrats, and not to Republicans. Now that’s corruption. A breathtaking betrayal that threatens the very foundation of our society. A cause for first anger and then rage.
And it’s plain enough that in the eyes of this administration, the life of an Iraqi, or an Afghan counts for nothing. As Blaise Pascal tells us, when force is employed without justice, it is tyranny. This is tyranny.
A Government that views the lives of foreign citizens as worthless will in the shortest of time come to the same conclusions with respect to its own citizens. Indeed, look at what happened in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
I’m proud of those hundreds of thousands of teenagers who took a stand for justice by recalling the incidents in Jena. I see the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a little child shall lead them.” The aspiration for justice is still alive, and it’s a great and noble thing–something for their parents to learn from. Two hundred and thirty years ago, America was a great beacon for justice. That beacon was viewed around the world and gave hope to all of mankind. And today, America’s wannabe autocrat has all but extinguished that beacon. It’s up to each of us as citizens to do what we can to rekindle it. Can we have any more important duty to our country than this?