In Great Britain, convicted looters are being dressed in orange jumpsuits and made to clean up areas damaged by recent riots. The law-and-order crowd on both sides of the Atlantic cheers this "riot payback scheme," even when applied to offenders who only grabbed some bottled water or received a stolen pair of running shorts from a friend.
After all, the phrase "zero tolerance" was made for moments when the poor and the powerless break the rules.
By contrast, these same British authorities will take no action against officials from the former government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who joined with President George W. Bush's team in making a bloody mess out of Iraq in clear violation of international law.
Indeed, if the architects of the Iraq War were put in orange jumpsuits and forced to fix the devastation of Iraq, one might see more justice in humiliating the British looters.
But it is impermissible to envision an orange-clad chain gang at work in Iraq consisting of Blair, Bush and their subordinates -- the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Jack Straw, Elliott Abrams and a host of neoconservatives, including many big-time media pundits. For such important people, different rules apply.
There also will be no special tribunal set up to deal with these former U.S./U.K. officials (and their allied propagandists) whose aggressive war in Iraq got hundreds of thousands killed. Such courts, it seems, are reserved for international law violators from weak states in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
At the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II, jurists from the United States and Great Britain made the specific point that the rules being established, including prohibitions against "aggressive war," were to be applied to the victors, not just the vanquished.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who represented the United States at Nuremberg, stated that holding Nazi leaders responsible was not just a case of victor's revenge but a desire to establish a precedent against aggressive war in the future.
"Let me make clear," Jackson said, "that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose, it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment."
But it seems Justice Jackson had it wrong. Based on what has happened in the six-plus decades since Nuremberg, an objective observer would have to conclude that the punishment of the Nazis, including the death penalty for some, was indeed a case of victor's revenge. When leaders of the former Allied powers engage in crimes like "aggressive war," nothing happens to them.
Indeed, today's tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court and special courts to handle acts of terrorism, target offenders from weak nations or from unpopular groups. These judicial bodies turn a blind eye to similar crimes committed by, or protected by, powerful governments.
So, while longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his inner circle seem destined for prosecution by the ICC -- if they're not simply executed by NATO-backed rebels -- it's unthinkable to suggest that Bush, Blair and their inner circles get dragged before the ICC for their role in precipitating the far greater slaughter in Iraq.
You see, while it's a crime against humanity when Gaddafi kills insurrectionists in Libya, it is perfectly okay when U.S. and British authorities slaughter "militants" opposed to Western occupation of their countries, whether Iraq or Afghanistan. Any "collateral damage" from Gaddafi's attacks is inexcusable, but "collateral damage" from U.S. missile strikes is shrugged off.
You have similar rules for terrorism. Acts of terrorism against the powerful or their friends must be punished, even if the evidence is thin to invisible and even if the wrong people get blamed. However, acts of terrorism by friends of the powerful require the sort of perfect evidence that doesn't exist in the real world. Those terrorists rarely get nailed.
Take, for example, the case of right-wing Cubans Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. They were clearly implicated as the masterminds of the in-flight bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976, killing 77 people.