If anyone needs additional ammunition to support the argument that in the US today there are two classes of people -- the unaccountable Bushites and the rest -- it was provided last week with two more examples by the camp of US President George W. Bush itself.
While countless individuals -- people who are outside Bush's political circle -- have been wasting away in the US prison system without due process, others, like former World Bank chief and co-architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq Paul Wolfowitz, whose abuse of authority at the bank led to his forced resignation, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, US Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, seem to be regulated by a different set of laws.
Wolfowitz, who before his appointment at the World Bank was the second-ranking official at the Pentagon, will now be a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based conservative think tank whose views on the Middle East and the use of force very much reflect those of the Bush administration.
In the face of his past miscalculations about the war and his unethical decisions at the World Bank, Wolfowitz will now once again find himself among like-minded people, where he will likely be able to do the greatest damage by influencing policy.
Libby, the Cheney aide who was implicated in the "Plamegate" scandal -- a press leak by the White House uncovering the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in an act of retaliation against Joseph Wilson (Plame's husband), who had accused the Bush administration of misleading the world during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq -- has also been saved by the hand of injustice. On the brink of serving a 30-month prison sentence, he suddenly saw Bush commute his prison sentence on the premise that it was "too harsh."
But this wasn't a pardon, Bush said, since Libby remains "on parole" and had to pay a US$250,000 fine for lying and obstruction of justice -- that is, if Bush does not grant him just that, a full pardon, which he later said remained an option.
"Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone."
Even if a full pardon didn't happen, given Libby's contacts in Washington and his "damaged" reputation notwithstanding, it shouldn't be too long before he, just like Wolfowitz, lands a job -- likely as a visiting scholar -- somewhere in the Bushite sphere.
As Media Transparency (www.mediatransparency.org) shows, the salaries for scholars at the AEI ranges from about US$60,000 a year for virtually unknown researchers to US$200,000 a year for better known ones (the median appears to be US$150,000). Wolfowitz's, surely, will be at the top end of the spectrum, if not above that -- as would Libby's. All of a sudden, that US$250,000 fine suddenly doesn't seem overly formidable. Some punishment indeed.
Now the important question is: Would the poor, recently landed Ahmed, or the hard-working Carlos, ever be extended that hand of justice? Of course not. What is two-and-half years in jail for a faceless immigrant -- even when the charges against him are laughable? But for a ranking official in the US administration, someone who has been found guilty by the judicial system? Thirty months is unconscionably long.
Furthermore, after serving their sentence, the Ahmeds and Carloses of this world will likely be deported, whereupon they will face the reality of more imprisonment, perhaps even torture. For the Bushites, however, those neo-conservatives with money and connections, what "punishment" awaits them is lucrative jobs in comfortable think tanks in Washington, book contracts or other such perks. How just.
These, sadly, are not isolated cases and US history is replete with similar examples of unseemly high-level pardons, commutations and exonerations. Nor is the US alone in this. But this legal system that rides roughshod on the general population -- especially when it comes to certain groups of people -- while sparing, if not compensating, white-collar crooks, certainly isn't something a supposed healthy democracy should be proud of. It certainly provides a strange example for the countries where, by force of arms, the "greatest democracy" is purportedly exporting the gift.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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