Courts are supposed to check the abuse of executive power, not cravenly serve it. But in the US and Israel, that is now the case
The US military announced on Monday that no criminal charges would be brought against the US marines in Afghanistan who videotaped themselves urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Nor, the military announced, would any criminal charges be filed against the US troops who “tried to burn about 500 copies of the Qur’an as part of a badly bungled security sweep at an Afghan prison in February, despite repeated warnings from Afghan soldiers that they were making a colossal mistake”.
In doing so, the US military, as usual, brushed aside demands of Afghan officials for legal accountability for the destructive acts of foreign soldiers in their country. The US instead imposed “disciplinary measures” in both cases, ones that “could include letters of reprimand, a reduction in rank, forfeit of some pay, physical restriction to a military base, extra duties or some combination of those measures”. Both incidents triggered intense protests and rioting that left dozens dead, back in February this year.
Parallel to that, an Israeli judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against the Israeli government brought by the family of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American student and pro-Palestinian activist who was killed by a military bulldozer in 2003 as she protested the demolition of a house in Gaza whose family she had come to befriend. Upon learning of the suit’s dismissal, Corrie’s mother, Cindy, said:
“I believe this was a bad day, not only for our family, but for human rights, humanity, the rule of law and also for the country of Israel.”
Despite Corrie’s wearing a bright orange vest, Judge Oded Gershon, in a 62-page decision, ruled that the bulldozer driver did not see her and her death was thus an accident. He went on to heap blame on Corrie for her own killing, arguing that, contrary to what “any reasonable person would have done”, she “chose to put herself in danger” by trying to impede “a military activity meant to prevent terrorist activity”.
The commonality in all three of these episodes is self-evident: the perversion of the justice system and rule of law as nothing more than a weapon to legitimize even the most destructive state actions, while severely punishing those who oppose them. The US and its loyal thinktank scholars have long demanded that other states maintain an “independent judiciary” as one of the key ingredients for living under the rule of law. But these latest episodes demonstrate, yet again, that the judiciary in the US, along with the one in its prime Middle East client state, is anything but “independent”: its primary function is to shield government actors from accountability.
The US military has continuously imposed pitifully light “punishments” on its soldiers even for the most heinous atrocities. The wanton slaughter of two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq and the severe and even lethal torture of Afghan detainees generated, at worst, shockingly short jail time for the killers and, usually, little more than letters of reprimand.
Contrast this tepid, reluctant wrist-slapping for the brutal crimes of occupying soldiers with what a UN investigation found was the US government’s “cruel and inhuman treatment” of Bradley Manning before he was convicted of anything. Manning has been imprisoned for more than two years now without having been found guilty of any crimes – already longer than any of the perpetrators of these fatal abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. He faces life in prison at the age of 23 for the alleged “crime” of disclosing to the world overwhelming evidence of corruption, deceit and illegality on the part of the world’s most powerful factions: disclosures that helped thwart the Obama administration’s efforts to keep US troops in Iraq, and which, as even WikiLeaks‘ harshest critics acknowledge, played some substantial role in helping to spark the Arab spring.
Notably, the first disclosure for which Manning was allegedly responsible – the videotape of an Apache helicopter gunning down unarmed Reuters journalists and then the rescuers who came to help the wounded, including two young children – resulted in zero accountability: the US military exonerated everyone involved. Instead, it is Manning, the person accused of exposing these crimes, who is punished as the real criminal.
And herein lies the real function of the American justice system, clearly revealed time and again. It is to protect high-level actors from accountability even for the most egregious of crimes, while severely punishing those who reveal or take a stand against those crimes, thus deterring and intimidating any future opposition.
That is the mentality that has led the Obama department of justice to aggressively shield all Bush officials from any and all accountability for their torture and surveillance crimes, while launching an unprecedented persecution campaign against whistleblowers. As always in US justice, the “real” criminals are those who alert the world to high-level crimes, not those who commit them. That is why the only person to suffer any repercussions from the Bush NSA eavesdropping scandal was Thomas Tamm: the mid-level DOJ lawyer who learned of the illegal program and alerted the New York Times about it. Those who authorized those crimes have been fully shielded from any form of punishment.
It is this same mentality that has led the US federal judiciary to produce the most disgraceful political fact of the last decade. Not a single victim of America’s “war on terror” abuses – even those now acknowledged by the US government to have been completely innocent – have been allowed even to have their cases heard in an American court on the merits. They’ve all had the courthouse doors slammed shut in the faces by courts that have accepted the US government’s claims that its own secrecy powers and immunity rights bar any such justice. Crimes committed by the state or in advancement of its agenda are simply immune from the rule of law in the US.
The same exploitation of the justice system is glaringly evident in the Rachel Corrie travesty. As the Guardian’s former Israel (and now Washington) correspondent Chris McGreal writes, the dismissal of this suit is simply a by-product of the “virtual impunity for Israeli troops no matter who they killed or in what circumstances”. That’s because Israeli courts, like American courts, have submissively accepted the supreme fiction of both governments: anyone impeding government actions is a terrorist or terrorist-enabler who gets what they deserve, while the actions of the state, no matter how savage, can never be anything other than legitimate.
Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, said after the verdict that Israel “employed a ‘well-heeled system’ to protect its soldiers and provide them with immunity”. Indeed, the Israeli “investigation” into Corrie’s death has been such a laughable whitewash that even the US ambassador to Israel last week told the Corrie family that he “did not believe the Israeli military investigation had been ‘thorough, credible and transparent’, as had been promised by Israel.” All of this, writes McGreal, shows how “covering up the truth about the killings of innocents, including Corrie, became an important part of the survival strategy because of the damage the truth could do to the military’s standing, not only in the rest of the world but also among Israelis.”
As I noted on Sunday, it is expected, inevitable, that those who wield political power will abuse it for corrupt and self-serving ends. That is why there are institutions designed to check and combat that abuse. The rule of law, and an independent judiciary applying it, is ostensibly one of those institutions. But – like establishment media outlets and most academics – this justice system now does the opposite: it is merely another weapon used to legitimize crimes by the powerful and crush those who oppose them.
All three of this week’s travesties, in the US and in Israel, are hardly surprising. To the contrary, they are the inevitable by-products of societies that recruit every institution in service of defending even the most wanton abuses by the state.