Schnaucl's Reviews > With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful

With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald
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's review
Jan 12, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: library, non-fiction, january, read_2012, recommended_reading
Read from January 12 to 22, 2012

This is an excellent and entirely depressing book about the political and financial elites' blanket immunity from the law.

I was a little put off by the introduction which goes on at great length about how the founders prized the rule of law above all else. In general I'm not a huge fan of the theory that says if the founders said/believed it, it must be right. (Especially when they themselves didn't apply an idea equally. Obviously African-Americans, women, and non-property owning whites were treated differently than property owning white men under the law). I prefer to rely on logical arguments that demonstrate why a principle is important today.

However, I did find it interesting (and relevant) that the founders thought it was natural that there should be some amount of inequality in all other aspects of life (income, politics, etc.) but that would be somewhat ameliorated by equality under the law.

In the first chapter, about political immunity, we are given several historical examples of those in power, including people in high levels within the presidential administration, being held to the rule of law. We have an example of a current administration investigating the crimes of the previous administration and lawbreakers were actually sent to jail.

Then we get to Ford's pardon of Nixon. Greenwald argues, persuasively, that Ford's pardon set the stage for future immunity for all political elites. The people who were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal were soon back in high level government positions, apparently suffering no consequences for their crimes, including lying to Congress.

The same insidious language is used over and over to give immunity to political elites, that we should be looking forward, not backward and not punishing previous crimes but ensuring it never happens again. It started with Ford's pardon and is employed every time immunity is granted (think of the number of times President Obama or his spokespeople used that language as a rationale for not investigating the crimes committed under the Bush Administration). As Greenwald points out, the law is always looking back. That's what the law does. And of course you cannot possibly ensure something never happens again if no one ever suffers any consequences for doing it in the first place.

Even "Scooter" Libbey never spent a single day in jail for outing Valerie Plame, his sentence was commuted by President Bush and much of the political elite was mad that he wasn't given an outright pardon. Nevermind that her career was destroyed and her some of her informants were brutally murdered.

One of the other things Greenwald points out is the complicity of the media. In one example, someone says of a political elite that he shouldn't go to jail because he's a real swell guy who even does his own shopping at the grocery store. (The book, of course, names names, but I don't have it in front of me). Well then! Can you imagine a regular person committing a crime and a reporter urging that he not be prosecuted because he's an ordinary guy who does his own grocery shopping?

Greenwald makes the case that one of the reasons the media is in no rush to investigate the torture regime under Bush is that the media was largely complicit in it. For the most part they didn't raise an objection at the time so they feel they can't do so now. Many Democrats have resisted investigations for the same reason. Those who knew about the torture, including Pelosi, are resistant to investigation because it may (should) come out exactly how much they knew and that they failed to act.

One the points that Greenwald makes over and over (and rightly so) is that by refusing to investigate torture under the Bush administration (to say nothing of continuing those policies) Obama is himself committing a crime. Under the Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, the failure to investigate torture is, in and of itself, a crime. The treaty specifically states that there is no excuse for doing so, including national security or terrorism.

Not only has the United States refused to investigate torture, but it has put tremendous pressure on other countries who try to do so. For example, when the horrific torture suffered by a British citizen (including cutting off his genitals) as an "enemy combatant" (he was later found innocent of any wrongdoing) was going to be made public as part of his trial in England (he sued the British government for their involvement in his detention and won), the United States, under President Obama, told the British government that if the paragraphs detailing his torture were made public, the United States would no longer share terrorist intelligence about any possible attacks on British soil with Britain. Think about that for a minute.

We've also applied tremendous pressure to the Spanish government after they arrested 21 CIA operatives in Spain.

Further, while Bush only threatened to try and dismiss entire lawsuits using the States Secrets law, the Obama DOJ has actually done it repeatedly.

And, of course, there's Obama's decision to assassinate US citizens without a trial far from the battlefield.

I don't know that Greenwald would necessarily say Obama's been the worst president since Ford in terms of violating the rule of law (he may say Bush deserves that honor, or someone else entirely) but I certainly feel that way. Bush may have been the one who started the torture, but it was Obama who gave Bush and his entire administration complete immunity. He didn't pardon them, of course, because he would have to admit that crimes were actually committed. But he certainly made it clear there would never be any investigations. No accountability.

ETA: I forgot to mention that Obama is also far more zealous in persecuting whistle blowers. As someone on Twitter recently snarked, if Bradly Manning had only committed war crimes instead of exposing them he'd be fine. The sad thing is, he's probably right. Although it's true some low level people are sometimes punished for their crimes. Never those at the top, of course, unless their "crime" is disrespect (General McChrystal).

Again, the rhetoric was "not to look to the past but to ensure it never happens again" while at the same time, ensuring it happens again because if there are no consequences for doing so, why should the next president refrain?

One of Obama's spokespeople (Holder?) outright said he wasn't investigating Bush because he thought it might set a precedent and he didn't want to be investigated for anything he might do (like, say, assassinating a US citizen without a trial).

He may have been a Constitutional scholar, but I can't think of anyone in recent memory who has so thoroughly violated the rule of law.

No prominent Republican is suggesting that Obama will be investigated for lawbreaking, of course, because that would require looking back at the Bush administration, too.

The second chapter largely revolved around the Telecoms and the retroactive immunity they were given for helping the government spy on American citizens without a warrant.

Greenwald makes the case that because of how closely the government is entwined with private enterprise (see One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing Of American Power And The Future Of Foreign Policy for more) there are essentially two divisions of the Telecoms, one public, one private.

Once again, one of the reasons to grant them immunity is so that the crimes of the government are never scrutinized.

The Telecoms, of course, mostly said they were "following orders." It took a while because there were protests, at first, but eventually, with the judicial application of major campaign contributions, the Telecom industry won the immunity it sought.

The third chapter is on the "Too Big to Fail" banks. Banks which have now become bigger than before they were deemed too big to fail.

Here, too, the revolving door between government officials, regulators, and the financial industry is part of the problem. The system is so porous that of course no one wants to investigate any of the crimes that were committed partly because the investigators or their friends would be implicated in breaking the law. Massive campaign donations also ensure that the record lawbreaking is never looked at. The fact that the financial collapsed devastated millions of ordinary people across the globe and the financial industry reaped massive profits is never considered a reason for real punishment.

Sure, there have been a few lawsuits, but it looks like once again the financial industry will get off not only scot-free but vastly enriched and the rest of us will get screwed.

The final chapter covers how the law is applied to the rest of us, particularly those least able to fend for themselves. The rise of "law and order" politics started in the 80's and it's simply astonishing what that has meant in terms of the increase in the number of Americans who have spent time in jail or prison.

One of the things that I hadn't appreciated before was how much of the money that used to fund the social safety net is now being used to imprison Americans for crimes that wouldn't warrant jail time in almost any other country. The privatization of prisons is also mentioned as having an influence, but Greenwald makes clear that this trend was going strong well before the private prison industry sprang up.

Mandatory minimums have a lot to do with it. There's no room for mercy in the courts, no way for judges to take circumstances into account. And even if they were, mercy has now become equated with weakness in the national lexicon of justice.

Lest you think this is all made-up by the writings of some Liberal, he includes a non-partisan objective study on justice where similar countries were compared in seven categories with over 700 variables. The US came in dead last in 4 of those categories, and 2nd to last in 2 others. The highest we ever scored was 3rd place and that was because the study did not count massive campaign contributions as "bribes" though I think the case could definitely be made that that's exactly what they are.

He also talks about how justice is denied for many low income people because they can't possibly afford lawyers, particularly in civil cases. Obama appointed someone to look into this, but almost immediately downgraded his position and vastly reduced the scope of his responsibility while also ensuring he had almost no authority to actually do anything.

When all is said and done, we're actually worse than some "Banana Republics" when it comes to the application of the rule of law.

We are a country in crisis. The rule of law no longer applies to the political or financial elites. No one has ever gone to jail for anything having to do with the financial meltdown. Dick Cheney feels free to openly confess that he ordered the torture of US prisoners because he's confident he'll never have the slightest repercussions for it. And he's right.

Greenwald doesn't end with a section on how to fix it, and for that, I'm grateful. He doesn't pretend that writing or calling your Congressmen will make the slightest bit of difference. Instead he ends with a warning. Whenever economic and judicial equality becomes to great, there's usually a violent revolution. (He does not in any way advocate for this, he just states historical fact).

One of the key points Greenwald makes over and over is that the elites no longer even pretend that there might be consequences for breaking the law. Why should they? Clearly they are immunized for even the most egregious lawbreaking while everyone else suffers increasingly harsh penalties for even the most minor of offenses.

This is America in 2012.

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message 1: by Lady (new) - added it

Lady Cogent, Schnaucl, cogent.

Schnaucl Thank you!

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