“Bad Precedents” Are in the Eye of the Beholder

On September 28 the U.S. Senate voted to override President Obama’s veto of a bill permitting American citizens to sue foreign governments for any role in terrorist attacks. Obama warned that the law would have unintended consequences, setting a “dangerous precedent” for other countries. The United States government, he warned, might face lawsuits by foreign countries for its military and intelligence operations overseas, and open U.S.troops and ambassadors to the threat of lawsuits. The bill’s erosion of sovereign immunity might enable “second-guessing our counter-terrorism operations and other actions that we take every day.” And Obama’s Democratic supporters in the commentariat — despite the antiwar noises they make when Republicans are in the Oval Office — have predictably rallied against the override. But in fact this “dangerous precedent” is a good one.

No doubt the vote by the GOP-dominated house was, as Obama accused, politically motivated. It was a way of scoring demagogic points against an officially Islamic regime. And it’s quite unlikely the bill’s sponsors intended to open the sainted Troops and intelligence officials to foreign lawsuits. But the fact of the matter is, the U.S. government’s military and intelligence operations overseas are overwhelmingly in the service of evil. Just limiting ourselves to the period since WWII, the United States has racked up a death toll of untold millions — probably the tens of millions, as a result not only of its own direct military invasions of other countries — but by sponsoring military coups, propping up fascist dictatorships, and funding, arming and training terrorist death squads. America, in total, has probably overthrown and installed more governments than any other empire in history. And this unprecedented war on humanity has been overwhelmingly for the sake of propping up a global political and economic order in which predominantly Western-owned corporations maintain their ownership of stolen land and natural resources, retain monopoly control over supply and distribution chains, and relegate the people of the Global South to supplying sweatshop labor.

Virtually every war the United States has fought overseas has been criminal, and every American President, Secretary of State or other high-ranking “national security” official has been implicated in crimes against humanity in the service of global corporate rule.

For centuries, there has been a legal fiction that murders, brutalizations and robberies carried out as “matters of state” are subject to a different set of standards from those committed by ordinary criminals. This legal fiction needs to end. Every living American President, along with criminal accomplices like Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Hillary Clinton, needs to be afraid to set foot outside the United States for fear of being seized and put on trial. The serpents’ nests in U.S. Embassies and CIA Stations abroad need to fear being shut down and put on trial for conspiring against the people of Guatemala, Vietnam, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile and too many other countries to count. Torturers at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and the entire U.S. military chain of command involved in murdering innocent civilians from top to bottom, need to be criminally and civilly liable.

States, in their essence, are criminal. They are the means by which economic ruling classes murder, enslave, rob and terrorize humanity in order to extract surplus labor and live off our sweat and blood. And their crimes are no different morally from those of the ordinary murderer and robber on the street, except in terms of their monstrous scale. I believe C.S. Lewis said the worst criminals in human history have had tailored suits, manicured fingernails and well-modulated voices, and sat behind desks in tastefully appointed offices. It’s time that they were treated as the criminals they are.

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