The state, in legal theory, is the entity claiming the sole right to define what is lawful or criminal activity in a given territory.
Perhaps just coincidentally, the state tends to judge the actions of its official agents and favored clients by a less strict standard of criminality than the one it uses to judge the actions of its subjects. And it tends to hold those it regards as enemies to a much higher standard of legality than those it regards as friends — again, perhaps just a coincidence.
The state can undertake actions that, for you or me, would mean life behind bars or even a ride on Old Sparky. But when the state does them they’re not really criminal, see, because they were done for — ahem — reasons of state.
In the famous words of Richard Nixon, in the David Frost interviews, “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
Consider, for example, recent revelations in a document released by Wikileaks that Texas military contractor DynCorp facilitated parties at which Afghan police officials placed bids on the sexual services of very young dancing boys.
To the U.S. government, this was no big deal. In fact the State Department did its best to cover it up. But this is the kind of thing that, if it had been done by (say) a religious cult leader in Waco, would have been sufficient cause for burning a hundred people alive (“for the children”). Had it been done in Milosevic’s Serbia or Saddam’s Iraq, the news would have been trumpeted with indignation from White House and State Department briefing rooms every single day as a pretext for regime change.
And does anyone have any idea when the last time was that Interpol took an interest in charges of unprotected sex in Sweden, or the British authorities put such a high priority on apprehending someone for such charges? I’ll just listen to the crickets chirp while I wait.
But never mind legality. Human life has a much higher value when it’s taken by an enemy of the state, for some reason, than it does when it’s taken by the state or one of its friends. I haven’t been keeping very close track of just how many times in the past few weeks someone has called for the criminal prosecution (or worse) of Julian Assange, based on the amount of “soldiers’ blood on his hands.” I don’t know how many people have demanded Assange be punished for risking the innocent lives of foreigners who secretly cooperated with the United States. But I suspect if I had a dollar for every iteration of that sentiment, I’d be a very rich man.
Oddly enough, though, nobody at TownHall.com wants to prosecute Bush, Cheney, Obama, who actually sent soldiers to be shot at, for the blood of thousands that’s dripping from their hands. I’ve never seen Sarah Palin demand that George Bush be hunted down like Osama Bin Laden for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who were killed as a direct consequence of the war he lied us into.
Let’s get back to that double standard for enemies versus friends of the state. Imagine, if you will, that the U.S. government has been supplying arms and military advisers to Satan. If you don’t read Mother Jones or In These Times, you’re probably blissfully unaware of the fact. But imagine that for some reason Satan stops taking orders from Washington, or does something that causes him to be regarded as a liability. Why, the very next day the White House Press Secretary would be standing up in front of the Press Corps, announcing in the most shocked tones what they’d just discovered was going on in Hell! Why, Satan has been making war on his neighbors and Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against His Own People! Oh, the humanity! Oh, we have to stop him — now! And then a twenty-year-old photo would resurface of Don Rumsfeld shaking hands with the Devil.
As the old joke goes, the U.S. government knew Saddam had WMDs because it kept the receipts. It knew he’d been making war on his neighbors, because its military advisers were giving him all kinds of handy tips on how to do it.
Look, if something’s a crime, it’s a crime no matter who does it. It’s a crime to kill people who are doing you no harm, and to take or damage their stuff. It’s a crime to send someone else to rob and kill innocent people. It’s a crime whether you’re Joe Blow, or whether you call yourself “Commander-in-Chief.”
A criminal’s a criminal, no matter how powerful.