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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, American War Crimes, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What a scam! Noam Scheiber and Patricia Cohen described it this way in a front-page New York Times report on how a small group of incredibly wealthy Americans funded their way into another tax universe: "Operating largely out of public view -- in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service -- the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government's ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans."

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Yes, you read that correctly: tiny numbers of Americans live on a different tax planet from the rest of us. They've paid for the privilege, of course, and increasingly for the political class that oversees how our country runs. They've insulated themselves in a largely tax-free zone that ensures their "equality" before the law (such as it is) and your deepening inequality before the same -- and before them. Their actions have garnered them the ultimate in impunity. In this election season in a country of more than 300 million people, for instance, a mere 158 families (and the companies they control) are putting their (largely tax-free) dollars where our mouths once were. By October, they had provided almost half the money thus far raised by presidential candidates in a move meant to ensure that American democracy becomes their system, their creature. ("Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision five years ago.")

My dictionary defines "impunity" simply enough as "exemption from punishment, penalty, or harm." That's a striking trait for those who lord it over us. In the most incarcerated nation on Earth, with close to 25% of the globe's prison population, there are seemingly no bars strong enough to hold our economic elites or, for that matter, their national security brethren.

The U.S. national security state, like the billionaire class, has grown ever richer and become ever more entrenched in these years, while similarly extracting itself from what was once the American political and legal system. Its officials now exist in a world of secrecy in which, in the name of our "safety," ever fewer of their acts are open to our scrutiny. They inhabit what can only be thought of as a crime-free zone. No act they commit, no matter how extralegal or illegal, will evidently ever land them in a court of law. They have, in essence, total impunity. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the CIA's massive, extralegal operation to kidnap "terror suspects" (often enough, as it turned out, innocent civilians) and deliver them to the torture chambers of brutal allies or to a system of "black sites" off the coast of normal justice. Lying to Congress, hacking congressional computers, and assassinating American citizens have all been green-lighted. No one was ever punished. When necessary, in the secret corridors of power, officials of the national security state simply mobilize lawyers to reinterpret the law of the land to their taste.

When it comes to impunity, their record has been the equal of anything the billionaire class has done. And none of it was more impressive, in its own way, than the use of obviously illegal methods of torture, euphemistically termed "enhanced interrogation techniques," against helpless prisoners in a secret global prison system, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reminds us today. You want war crimes? Post-9/11, Washington could have sported the logo: War Crimes "R" Us. If you want to understand what this sort of impunity means in terms of the politics of 2016, then read on. Tom

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America Revisits the Dark Side
Candidates Compete to Promise the Most Torture and Slaughter
By Rebecca Gordon

They're back!

From the look of the presidential campaign, war crimes are back on the American agenda. We really shouldn't be surprised, because American officials got away with it last time -- and in the case of the drone wars continue to get away with it today. Still, there's nothing like the heady combination of a "populist" Republican race for the presidency and a national hysteria over terrorism to make Americans want to reach for those "enhanced interrogation techniques." That, as critics have long argued, is what usually happens if war crimes aren't prosecuted.

In August 2014, when President Obama finally admitted that "we tortured some folks," he added a warning. The recent history of U.S. torture, he said, "needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that so hopefully we don't do it again in the future." By pinning the responsibility for torture on all of us "as a country," Obama avoided holding any of the actual perpetrators to account.

Unfortunately, "hope" alone will not stymie a serial war criminal -- and the president did not even heed his own warning. For seven years his administration has done everything except help the country "take responsibility" for torture and other war crimes. It looked the other way when it comes to holding accountable those who set up and ran the CIA's large-scale torture operations at its "black sites" around the world. It never brought charges against those who ordered torture at Guanta'namo. It prosecuted no one, above all not the top officials of the Bush administration.

Now, in the endless run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, we've been treated to some pretty strange gladiatorial extravaganzas, with more to come in 2016. In these peculiarly American spectacles, Republican candidates hurl themselves at one another in a frenzied effort to be seen as the candidate most likely to ignore the president's wan hope and instead "do it again in the future." As a result, they are promising to commit a whole range of crimes, from torture to the slaughter of civilians, for which the leaders of some nations would find themselves hauled into international court as war criminals. But "war criminal" is a label reserved purely for people we loathe, not for us. To paraphrase former President Richard Nixon, if the United States does it, it's not a crime.

In the wake of the brutal attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the promises being openly made to commit future crimes have only grown more forthright. A few examples from the presidential campaign trail should suffice to make the point:

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* Ted Cruz guarantees that "we" will "utterly destroy ISIS." How will we do it? "We will carpet bomb them into oblivion" -- that is, "we" will saturate an area with munitions in such a way that everything and everyone on the ground is obliterated. Of such a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, he told a cheering crowd at the Rising Tide Summit, "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." (It's hard not to take this as a reference to the use of nuclear weapons, though in the bravado atmosphere of the present Republican campaign a lot of detailed thought is undoubtedly not going into any such proposals.)

* Kindly retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson evidently has similar thoughts. When pressed by CNN co-moderator Hugh Hewitt in the most recent Republican debate on whether he was "tough" enough to be "okay with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian[s]," Carson replied, "You got it. You got it." He even presented a future campaign against the Islamic State in which "thousands" of children might die as an example of the same kind of tough love a surgeon sometimes exhibits when facing a difficult case. It's like telling a child, he assured Hewitt, that "we're going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor. They're not happy about it, believe me. And they don't like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me." So, presumably, will those "dead innocent children" in Syria -- once they get over the shock of being dead.

* Jeb Bush's approach brought what, in Republican circles, passes for nuance to the discussion of future war crimes policy. What Washington needs, he argued, is "a strategy" and what stands in the way of the Obama administration developing one is an excessive concern with the niceties of international law. As he put it, "We need to get the lawyers off the back of the warfighters. Right now under President Obama, we've created... this standard that is so high that it's impossible to be successful in fighting ISIS." Meanwhile, Jeb has surrounded himself with a familiar clique of neocon "advisers" -- people like George W. Bush's former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his former Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who planned for and advocated the illegal U.S. war against Iraq, which touched off a regional war with devastating human consequences.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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