Monday, May 01, 2006

The Bushite Way of Death

As we await the jury's verdict in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui--will the jurors decide on death, or life imprisonment without the possiblilty of parole?--I brood over an incident at the trial two or three weeks ago. Despite specific instructions from Judge Leonie Brinkema never to do so, a lawyer on the prosecution team had coached four potential witnesses--air-traffic controllers, I believe--on how they should testify in order to ease the jurors' path to a death verdict. So outraged was the judge, it was thought that she might dismiss the case altogether (never fear: she'd been reversed by the Bushite majority on the appellate court before in her attempts to curb prosecutorial misconduct, and wasn't about to be humiliated a second time).

The widow of a man killed at the Pentagon was distraught at the thought that Moussaoui now might escape with his life. She was furious with the prosecution. "I feel as if they've ripped my guts out," she said. "It's as if the government killed my husband all over again." She, of course, yearned for "closure." (When did that awful word take on the meaning it now has? My twenty-five year old Concise Oxford has only one meaning, as in "there's been a closure on Route 99 North due to an overturned semi." But since then the word has spread like kudzu in the world of grief and healing. Oddly enough, however, my 2001 New Oxford American Dictionary affords no sanction to its modern pop usage either ((catharsis? abreaction? delight in another's well-deserved death?))). Whatever, death as closure is what is required. After a parade of prosecution witnesses in the penalty phase of the trial, people who wept describing the horrible deaths of loved ones, Moussaoui was asked if he felt any remorse at all, and--out of the mouth of a madman--came a reply which in its trenchancy and mordant wit might have been uttered by Gore Vidal: "I find it disgusting that people will unburden their grief in order to obtain the death of another."

All this reminded me of an indisputable truth. If the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzalez Justice Department had been willing to settle for a life sentence, Moussaoui would have been convicted almost five years ago. Think of the money we'd have saved! We'd have almost forgotten him by now, as we have the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, or Sirhan Sirhan, or George Wallace's would-be assassin, or Squeaky From. But this president, his first A.G. and the current A.G. believe in death. It's the appropriate end for evildoers of all sorts. Death must be served at whatever cost.

Thus, John Aschcroft at first hoped for death for that traitor John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban." Poor Lindh, that luckless truth-seeker, who found himself swept up in events and then down in an earthen celler for days as Northern Alliance fedayeen poured water down there to drown Taliban fighters like rats. Lindh had never even picked up a weapon! He reminds me of Thomas Berger's Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man finding himself with the hubris-crazed Custer at Little Big Horn, or George Macdonald Fraser's Sir Harry Flashman somehow winding up in the company of John Brown's desperadoes at Harper's Ferry. In the end, Lindh's attorneys talked him into copping a plea, knowing the temper of northern Virginia jurors. Twenty years for aiding the enemy (a statute previously construed to apply to financial aid of some sort; Lindh's aid consisted in his being there).

The first victim of the D.C. snipers was shot in Maryland, I believe. Ashcroft intervened to transfer the culprits to Virginia, where they had also killed. Maryland has no death penalty. Virginia does.
Bush, as governor of Texas, signed off on the executions of hundreds. Alberto Gonzalez, as his AG, never found grounds for reducing a death sentence to life. Remember Karla Faye Tucker? At age twenty and high on meth, angel dust and God knows what else, she participated with her biker boyfriend in a horrendous double murder. Eighteen years later, facing death by lethal injection, she was a wholly changed woman. Model prisoner. Sweet counselor to her fellow inmates, even an inspiration to them. And, of course, like George W. Bush, a born-again Christian. Surely, here was an instance of redemption. He put her to death. Tucker Carlson asked Bush what Karla Faye had said to him. Bush grinned, and, mimicking a whimpering female voice, said, "Please don't kill me."

In their belief in the death penalty the Bushies are wholly in accord with their favorite Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia. In a talk a few years ago at the University of Chicago law school, reprinted in the Rev. Richard John Neustadt's reactionary Catholic journal, Last Things, Scalia explained why Europeans were opposed to the death penalty. It's because European culture is now irredeemably "secular." That is to say Europeans are atheists. They think this life is all there is. But if you are a believing Christian, convinced of the existence of an after-life, then death is "no big deal."

Nor is it a big deal for our newly-found Shiite allies in Iraq. After another Sunni mosque-bombing atrocity, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Neima of the Interior Ministry, surveying the wreckage, said, "The people of this country have grown accustomed to being slaughtered, and we feel proud that we're sacrificing ourselves and getting closer to God." He added, "The suicide bombers have turned themselves into gate-keepers of heaven." (NY Times, Sat Apr 8, '06) Well, that's one way of looking at it.

The new Shiite prime minister, deemed quite acceptable by Condi Rice, Jawad al-Maliki, is even more fervent than Dubya in his belief in death. "In contrast to more moderate Iraqi leaders who have sought to bring insurgents into the political process, Mr. Maliki pushed proposals aimed at the Sunni-dominated insurgency that called for the death penalty not only for those who commit murder but also for anyone, he said last year, found to 'finance, propagate, cover up, support or provide shelter for the terrorists, no matter how involved they are.'" (Times, 4/22/06) Hmm... Come to think of it, that's why Bush wants Moussaoui dead, isn't it, for covering up a crime in which he took no part?

The Bushies are in perfect accord with Scalia not only in their enthusiasm for the death penalty but also in their contempt for international law, which our ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, says doesn't even exist. Say "international norms of jurisprudence" within Scalia's hearing and you'll get a shower of verbal buckshot. When the Supreme Court recently decided that executing people for crimes committed under the age of 18 was unconstitutional in part because other nations no longer countenanced it, Scalia, the originalist, was scathing in his dissent. What were we, a sovereign power, doing seeking to align our practices with those of bunch of foreigners?? "Evolving standards," he said in another venue, are believed in only by idiots.

If you combine the two, belief in death and contempt for international law, you get the trial of Saddam Hussein. Did anyone in the Bush administration ever consider for a moment that the prudent course might be to hand Saddam over to some competent international tribunal for trial? Say the International Criminal Court in the Hague? Of course not. For one thing that would have precluded the death penalty. Bush and the Shiites want Saddam dead. More than that, it would have meant recognition of the ICC's legitimacy, a court which Bush and all right-thinking Republicans detest because the first thing it would do would be to indict Henry Kissinger--or so they fear.

So, in Iraq, a nation with no judiciary, no tradition of judicial independence, no law but for the inevitable imposition of Sharia, and few lawyers, the Coalition Provisional Authority creates a court out of wholecloth specifically to try, convict, and hang Saddam Hussein. Thus the farcical on-and-off spectacle the world now witnesses. There's another consideration in play here: Dead men tell no tales. The US was his enabler in the Iran-Iraq war. (Note that the present court will never prosecute him for beginning that preventive war.) If Saddam were to be tried by the ICC, and it got to the gassing of Kurds, which this show trial will never get to, and I were a lawyer for the defense, I'd say, "May it please the Court, the Defense now calls its first witness. Will Donald Rumsfeld approach the witness box?"

One day last November I was listening to "Talk of the Nation" on NPR and the subject was the impending trial of Saddam. There was a glib law professor who had been the CPA's lead guy in establishing this special court and an American attorney on the defense team with Ramsey Clark. This guy was understandably rather testy; the professsor was smooth as silk. Neal Conan clearly didn't like the defense guy's manners and seemed deeply impressed by the cogency of the law professor's assurances that the whole thing was on the up-and-up. But Conan, that lickspittle, never asked the professor the obvious question: why not turn Saddam over to an international body? What has the US got against international law?

Maddened by Conan's studied incuriosity, I thought of the summer of 2003 and Charles Taylor, the monster of Liberia. Now, thanks to a miraculous confluence of events and lucky accidents, Taylor is at last in custody in the Hague. How is it that Taylor eluded capture two and a half years ago? A New York Times editorial (Tues, Mar 26, '06) explains that when "Taylor was under siege by rebel forces in 2003, the United States, Britain, and Nigeria arranged for him to get asylum in Nigeria, under the correct assumption that his quick exile would reduce the bloodshed." At some point, if one is to believe the Times, Bush changed his mind about the sufficiency of Nigerian exile for Taylor. Lydia Polgreen writes in the Times of Thursday, March 30, "The loudest calls for Mr. Taylor's arrest came not from his victims but from the United States, which has backed the international court here [in Sierra Leone] financially and diplomatically."

It makes one's head whirl. I remember the summer of 2003, and it wasn't like that. Taylor's forces were under siege by rebel kids wearing Nikes and shooting Kalashnikovs, and all in Monrovia was in chaos for weeks. More and more dead. Liberians pleading for intervention. Bush, grotesquely, was on a whirlwind tour of Africa. He utterly ignored the Liberian mess. I wondered if he, with a BA in history from Yale, was even aware that Liberia was a creation of the American Colonization Society, conceived by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster among others, with President James Monroe as its honorary chairman, and that it might be argued the United States had a special responsibility for what might occur there.

Finally, Bush acted. He ordered an LHA (Landing-Helicopter-Assault) on station in the Indian Ocean to proceed to the Red Sea, Suez, the Med, then the Atlantic and Liberia. I thought at the time, "You mean there's no LHA nearer than that?" More than twenty years ago I taught aboard an LHA, the Belleau Wood. We went round and round in the IO and once put into Berbera, Somalia, but that's another story. LHAs are like aircraft carriers but their flight decks are about 800 feet in length rather than 1100. They carry Chinook helicopters, and several hundred marines (they're all named after battles in which marines fought).

So, this LHA is coming to the rescue of the Liberians. Except it isn't. When it's within about twenty naughts of Monrovia, it parks. And doesn't move for two weeks or more. God, did I feel for those marines! Life for a marine aboard an LHA is lectures, squad tactics, stripping and reassembling weapons, and running and running on the flight deck. When that ship was ordered to Liberia those guys had to be excited. Some action! And in a noble humanitarian cause! For black marines, especially, this must have seemed a godsend, going in there, kicking some ass, and saving the brothers from the bad guys! And there their ship sat, day after day, while Bush mulled his next move.

So as the LHA sat half an hour from shore, things got worse and worse in Monrovia. People were at the US Embassy pleading for the marines to come in. They began stacking their dead at the embassy gates as marine guards looked on, powerless to do anything. Why this cowardly delay, this waste of lives? Because Bush said Taylor must leave before the US would intervene, and then only after the Nigerians had gone in. Why must Taylor leave? Only one answer made any sense at all. If he were still there when the Americans came ashore, they'd have had to arrest him, and that would have meant turning him over to a UN- commissioned court. The Times story that Bush insisted on Taylor's exile first to reduce the bloodshed is the veriest bullshit. The marines were poised to go in weeks earlier, and would have done a hell of a lot better job of it than the Nigerians. Plus, this was one American armed intervention that would have been greeted with flowers and sweets, if the Liberians had had any. Think of the publicity: Bush for once does something decent! All of which raises the question: when and why was Bush suddenly hot for Taylor being delivered up to an international tribunal? I've read nothing in the Times that provides any clues.

At 11:12 PM, the Irate Codger rests. Cheers, all!