I Hate Electoral Politics — But I’m Organizing Voters Every Day Until Next November

I Hate Electoral Politics — But I’m Organizing Voters Every Day Until Next November

How far are we? Who really knows? Let’s just say that we’re somewhere significantly down the road to extremity, all-American style. With a hung (and wrung-out) Congress and a lame (and aged) president, our tripartite government is looking ever less “tri” and ever more “part.” And it increasingly seems that the part being emphasized is a Supreme Court that should perhaps be renamed the Extreme Court. Only recently, it issued a series of Trumpist rulings that, from green-lighting the carrying of concealed weaponry to suppressing abortion to keeping climate change on track, rivaled in their extremity the 1857 Dred Scott ruling’s endorsement of slavery that helped launch the Civil War.

And that may just be the beginning. In their next term, for instance, the six justices of the Extreme Court could turn directly to that “tri” and try to whittle it down further. In particular, they may endorse what’s called the independent state legislature doctrine, an extremist theory that, according to the New York Times, “would give state legislatures independent power, not subject to review by state courts, to set election rules at odds with state constitutions, and to draw congressional maps warped by partisan gerrymandering.” And since, at this point, a significant majority of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans the possibility of gerrymandering the political map into a forever-winning extremist government seems all too imaginable.

So hold onto your hats (and guns) folks — we’ve already passed through the diciest post-election season in memory. (Sedition, you bet!) And we could be heading toward an all-American, all-Trumpist Extreme Court and Republican Party version of something akin to fascism.

With that in mind, could there be anything more important than getting out the vote in elections of 2022 and 2024? I doubt it. So, thank you TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon for heading back to Nevada to lend a hand. We should all, whatever our doubts, take her as an example of what has to be done to prevent the Extremes from taking this land from so many of the rest of us. Tom

Recently, I told my friend Mimi that, only weeks from now, I was returning to Reno to help UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, in the potentially nightmarish 2022 election. “Even though,” I added, “I hate electoral politics.”

She just laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You’ve been saying that as long as I’ve known you,” she replied with a grin.

How right she was. And “as long as I’ve known you” has been a pretty long time. We met more than a quarter of a century ago when my partner and I hired her as the first organizer in a field campaign to defeat Proposition 209. That ballot initiative was one of a series pandering to the racial anxieties of white Californians that swept through the state in the 1990s. The first of them was Prop 187, outlawing the provision of government services, including health care and education, to undocumented immigrants. In 1994, Californians approved that initiative by a 59% to 41% vote. A federal court, however, found most of its provisions unconstitutional and it never went into effect.

We weren’t so lucky with Proposition 209, which, in 1996, outlawed affirmative-action programs statewide at any level of government or public service. Its effects reverberate to this day, not least at the prestigious University of California’s many campuses.

A study commissioned 25 years later by its Office of the President revealed that “Prop 209 caused a decline in systemwide URG enrollment by at least twelve percent.” URGs are the report’s shorthand for “underrepresented groups” — in other words, Latinos, Blacks, and Native Americans. Unfortunately, Proposition 209’s impact on the racial makeup of the university system’s students has persisted for decades and, as that report observed, “led URG applicants to cascade out of UC into measurably less-advantageous universities.” Because of UC’s importance in California’s labor market, “this caused a decline in the total number of high-earning ($100,000) early-30s African American and Hispanic/Latinx Californians by at least three percent.”

Yes, we lost the Prop 209 election, but the organization we helped start back in 1995, Californians for Justice, still flourishes. Led by people of color, it’s become a powerful statewide advocate for racial justice in public education with a number of electoral and legislative victories to its name.

Shortcomings And The Short Run

How do I hate thee, electoral organizing? Let me count the ways. First, such work requires that political activists like me go wide, but almost never deep. It forces us to treat voters like so many items to be checked off a list, not as political actors in their own right. Under intense time pressure, your job is to try to reach as many people as possible, immediately discarding those who clearly aren’t on your side and, in some cases, even actively discouraging them from voting. In the long run, treating elections this way can weaken the connection between citizens and their government by reducing all the forms of democratic participation to a single action, a vote. Such political work rarely builds organized power that lasts beyond Election Day.

In addition, electoral campaigns sometimes involve lying not just to voters, but even to your own canvassers (not to speak of yourself) about whether you can win or not. In bad campaigns — and I’ve seen a couple of them — everyone lies about the numbers: canvassers about how many doors they’ve knocked on; local field directors about what their canvassers have actually done; and so on up the chain of command to the campaign director. In good campaigns, this doesn’t happen, but those may not, I suspect, be in the majority. And lying, of course, can become a terrible habit for anyone hoping to construct a strong organization, not to mention a better world.

Lying, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, is a way of treating people as if they were merely things to be used. Electoral campaigns can often tempt organizers to take just such an instrumental approach to others, assuming voters and campaign workers have value only to the extent that they can help you win. Such an approach, however efficient in the short run, doesn’t build solidarity or democratic power for the long haul. Sometimes, of course, the threat is so great — as was true when it came to the possible reelection of Donald Trump in 2020 — that the short run simply matters more.

Another problem with elections? Campaigns so often involve convincing people to do something they’ve come to think of as a waste of time, namely, going to the polls. A 2018 senatorial race I worked on, for example, focused on our candidate’s belief in the importance of raising the minimum wage. And yes, we won that election, but four years later, the federal minimum wage is still stubbornly stuck at $7.25 an hour, though not, of course, through any fault of our candidate. Still, the voters who didn’t think electing Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen would improve their pay weren’t wrong.

On the other hand, the governor we helped elect that same year (and for whose reelection I’ll be working again soon) did come through for working Nevadans by, for example, signing legislation that guarantees a worker’s right to be recalled before anyone new is hired when a workplace reopens after a Covid shutdown.

You’ll hear some left-wing intellectuals and many working people who are, in the words of the old saying, “too broke to pay attention,” claim that elections don’t change anything. But such a view grows ever harder to countenance in a world where a Supreme Court disastrously reshaped by Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell is hell-bent on reshaping nearly the last century of American political life. It’s true that overturning Roe v. Wade doesn’t affect my body directly. I’m too old to need another abortion. Still, I’m just as angry as I was in 2016 at people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wasn’t Bernie Sanders. As I told such acquaintances at the time, “Yes, we’ll hate her and we’ll have to spend the next four years fighting her, but on the other hand, SUPREME COURT, SUPREME COURT, SUPREME COURT!”

Okay, maybe that wasn’t exactly the most elegant of arguments, but it was accurate, as anyone will tell you who’d like to avoid getting shot by a random heat-packing pedestrian, buried under the collapsing wall between church and state, or burned out in yet another climate-change-induced conflagration.

If Voting Changed Anything…

Back in 1996, as Election Day approached, Californians for Justice had expanded from two offices — in Oakland and Long Beach — to 11 around the state. We were paying a staff of 45 and expanding (while my partner and I lay awake many nights wondering how we’d make payroll at the end of the week). We were ready for our get-out-the-vote push.

Just before the election, one of the three organizations that had given us seed money published its monthly newsletter. The cover featured a photo of a brick wall spray-painted with the slogan: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Great, just what we needed!

It’s not as if I didn’t agree, at least in part, with the sentiment. Certainly, when it comes to foreign policy and the projection of military force globally, there has been little difference between the two mainstream political parties. Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have cooperated in a remarkably congenial way when it comes to this country’s disastrous empire-building project, while financially rewarding the military-industrial complex, year after year, in a grandiose fashion.

Even in the Proposition 209 campaign, my interest lay more in building long-term political power for California communities of color than in a vote I already knew we would lose. Still, I felt then and feel today that there’s something deeply wrong with the flippant response of some progressives that elections aren’t worth bothering about. I’d grown up in a time when, in the Jim Crow South, voting was still largely illegal for Blacks and people had actually died fighting for their right to vote. Decades earlier, some of my feminist forebears had been tortured while campaigning for votes for women.

Making Voting Illegal Again

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, explicitly outlawing any law or regulation that “results in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.” Its specific provisions required states or counties with a history of voter suppression to receive “pre-clearance” from the attorney general or the District Court for the District of Columbia for any further changes in election laws or practices. Many experts considered this provision the heart of that Act.

Then, in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, a Supreme Court largely shaped by Republican presidents tore that heart right out. Essentially, the court ruled that, because those once excluded from voting could now do so, such jurisdictions no longer needed preclearance to change their voting laws and regulations. In other words, because it was working, it should be set aside.

Not surprisingly, some states moved immediately to restrict access to voting rights. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.” Within two months, North Carolina passed what that center called “a far-reaching and pernicious voting bill” which:

“instituted a strict photo ID requirement; curtailed early voting; eliminated same day registration; restricted preregistration; ended annual voter registration drives; and eliminated the authority of county boards of elections to keep polls open for an additional hour.”

Fortunately, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the North Carolina law in 2016, and surprisingly the Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

But as it turned out, the Supremes weren’t done with the Voting Rights Act. In 2021, the present Trumpian version of the court issued a ruling in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee upholding Arizona’s right to pass laws requiring people to vote only in precincts where they live, while prohibiting anyone who wasn’t a relative of the voter from hand-delivering mail-in ballots to the polls. The court held that, even though in practice such measures would have a disproportionate effect on non-white voters, as long as a law was technically the same for all voters, it didn’t matter that, in practice, it would become harder for some groups to vote.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito declared that states have a different and more important interest in such voting restrictions: preventing voter fraud. In other words — at least in the minds of two-thirds of the present Supreme Court — some version of Donald Trump’s big lie about rigged elections and voter fraud has successfully replaced racist voter suppression as the primary future danger to free and fair elections.

Maybe elections do change something. Otherwise, why, in the wake of the 2020 elections, would “they” (including Republican-controlled state legislatures across significant parts of the country) be so intent on making it ever harder for certain people to vote? And if you think that’s bad, wait until the Supremes rule next year on the fringe legal theory of an “independent state legislature.” We may well see the court decide that a state’s legislature can legally overrule the popular vote in a federal election — just in time for the 2024 presidential race.

The Future Awaits Us

A couple of times a week I talk by phone with another friend. We began doing this at the height of George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s vicious “war on terror.” We’d console each other when it came to the horrors of that conflict, including the illegal invasion of Iraq, the deaths and torture of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, and the seemingly endless expansion of American imperial meddling. We’re still doing it. Somehow, every time we talk, it seems as if the world has travelled one more mile on its way to hell in a hand-basket.

Both of us have spent our lives trying, in our own modest fashion, to gum up the works of capitalism, militarism, and authoritarian government. To say that we’ve been less than successful would certainly be understating things. Still, we do keep at it, while discussing what in the world we can still do.

At this point in my life and my country’s slide into authoritarian misery, I often find it hard even to imagine what would be useful. Faced with such political disorientation, I fall back on a core conviction that, when the way forward is unclear, the best thing we can do is give people the experience of achieving in concert what they could never achieve by themselves. Sometimes, the product of an organizing drive is indeed victory. Even when it isn’t though, helping create a group capable of reading a political situation and getting things done, while having one another’s backs, is also a kind of victory.

That’s why, this election season, my partner and I are returning to Reno to join hotel housekeepers, cooks, and casino workers trying to ensure the reelection of two Democrats, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Governor Steve Sisolak, in a state where the margin of Democratic Party victories hasn’t grown since 2012.

From our previous experience, we know one thing: we’ll be working in a well-run campaign that won’t waste anyone’s time and has its eye on the future. As I wrote about the union’s 2020 presidential campaign for Joe Biden, more than winning a difficult election is at stake. What’s also important is building organized power for working people. In other words, providing the kind of training and leadership development that will send “back to every hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport catering service leaders who can continue to organize and advocate for their working-class sisters and brothers.”

I still hate electoral politics, but you don’t always get to choose the terrain you’re fighting on. Through its machinations at the federal, state, and county level, the Republican Party has been all but screaming its plans to steal the next presidential election. It’s no exaggeration to say that preserving some form of democratic government two years from now depends in part on keeping Republicans from taking over Congress, especially the Senate, this year.

So, it’s back to Reno, where the future awaits us. Let’s hope it’s one we can live with.

Reprinted with permission from Tom Dispatch.

Why Do We Need A '24/7 Economy' -- And What Does It Cost Us?

Why Do We Need A '24/7 Economy' -- And What Does It Cost Us?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

In mid-October, President Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles would begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, joining the nearby Port of Long Beach, which had been doing so since September. The move followed weeks of White House negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, as well as shippers like UPS and FedEx, and major retailers like Walmart and Target.

The purpose of expanding port hours, according to the New York Times, was “to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.” Reading this, you might be forgiven for imagining that an array of crucial items like medicines or their ingredients or face masks and other personal protective equipment had been languishing in shipping containers anchored off the West Coast. You might also be forgiven for imagining that workers, too lazy for the moment at hand, had chosen a good night’s sleep over the vital business of unloading such goods from boats lined up in their dozens offshore onto trucks, and getting them into the hands of the Americans desperately in need of them. Reading further, however, you’d learn that those “critical goods” are actually things like “exercise bikes, laptops, toys, [and] patio furniture.”

Fair enough. After all, as my city, San Francisco, enters what’s likely to be yet another almost rainless winter on a planet in ever more trouble, I can imagine my desire for patio furniture rising to a critical level. So, I’m relieved to know that dock workers will now be laboring through the night at the command of the president of the United States to guarantee that my needs are met. To be sure, shortages of at least somewhat more important items are indeed rising, including disposable diapers and the aluminum necessary for packaging some pharmaceuticals. Still, a major focus in the media has been on the specter of “slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Providing “critical” yard furnishings is not the only reason the administration needs to unkink the supply chain. It’s also considered an anti-inflation measure (if an ineffective one). At the end of October, the Consumer Price Index had jumped 6.2% over the same period in 2020, the highest inflation rate in three decades. Such a rise is often described as the result of too much money chasing too few goods. One explanation for the current rise in prices is that, during the worst months of the pandemic, many Americans actually saved money, which they’re now eager to spend. When the things people want to buy are in short supply — perhaps even stuck on container ships off Long Beach and Los Angeles — the price of those that are available naturally rises.

Republicans have christened the current jump in the consumer price index as “Bidenflation,” although the administration actually bears little responsibility for the situation. But Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats know one thing: If it looks like they’re doing nothing to bring prices down, there will be hell to pay at the polls in 2022 and so it’s the night shift for dock workers and others in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and possibly other American ports.

However, running West Coast ports 24/7 won’t solve the supply-chain problem, not when there aren’t enough truckers to carry that critical patio furniture to Home Depot. The shortage of such drivers arises because there’s more demand than ever before, and because many truckers have simply quit the industry. As the New York Times reports, “Long hours and uncomfortable working conditions are leading to a shortage of truck drivers, which has compounded shipping delays in the United States.”

Rethinking (Shift) Work

Truckers aren’t the only workers who have been rethinking their occupations since the coronavirus pandemic pressed the global pause button. The number of employees quitting their jobs hit 4.4 million this September, about 3% of the U.S. workforce. Resignations were highest in industries like hospitality and medicine, where employees are most at risk of Covid-19 exposure.

For the first time in many decades, workers are in the driver’s seat. They can command higher wages and demand better working conditions. And that’s exactly what they’re doing at workplaces ranging from agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere to breakfast-cereal makers Kellogg and Nabisco. I’ve even been witnessing it in my personal labor niche, part-time university faculty members (of which I’m one). So allow me to pause here for a shout-out to the 6,500 part-time professors in the University of California system: Thank you! Your threat of a two-day strike won a new contract with a 30% pay raise over the next five years!

This brings me to Biden’s October announcement about those ports going 24/7. In addition to demanding higher pay, better conditions, and an end to two-tier compensation systems (in which laborers hired later don’t get the pay and benefits available to those already on the job), workers are now in a position to reexamine and, in many cases, reject the shift-work system itself. And they have good reason to do so.

So, what is shift work? It’s a system that allows a business to run continuously, ceaselessly turning out and/or transporting widgets year after year. Workers typically labor in eight-hour shifts: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8:00 a.m., or the like. In times of labor shortages, they can even be forced to work double shifts, 16 hours in total. Businesses love shift work because it reduces time (and money) lost to powering machinery up and down. And if time is money, then more time worked means more profit for corporations. In many industries, shift work is good for business. But for workers, it’s often another story.

The Graveyard Shift

Each shift in a 24-hour schedule has its own name. The day shift is the obvious one. The swing shift takes you from the day shift to the all-night, or graveyard, shift. According to folk etymology, that shift got its name because, once upon a time, cemetery workers were supposed to stay up all night listening for bells rung by unfortunates who awakened to discover they’d been buried alive. While it’s true that some coffins in England were once fitted with such bells, the term was more likely a reference to the eerie quiet of the world outside the workplace during the hours when most people are asleep.

I can personally attest to the strangeness of life on the graveyard shift. I once worked in an ice cream cone factory. Day and night, noisy, smoky machines resembling small Ferris wheels carried metal molds around and around, while jets of flame cooked the cones inside them. After a rotation, each mold would tip, releasing four cones onto a conveyor belt, rows of which would then approach my station relentlessly. I’d scoop up a stack of 25, twirl them around in a quick check for holes, and place them in a tall box.Almost simultaneously, I’d make cardboard dividers, scoop up three more of those stacks and seal them, well-divided, in that box, which I then inserted in an even larger cardboard carton and rushed to a giant mechanical stapler. There, I pressed it against a switch, and — boom-ba-da-boom — six large staples would seal it shut, leaving me just enough time to put that carton atop a pallet of them before racing back to my machine, as new columns of just-baked cones piled up, threatening to overwhelm my worktable.

The only time you stopped scooping and boxing was when a relief worker arrived, so you could have a brief break or gobble down your lunch. You rarely talked to your fellow-workers, because there was only one “relief” packer, so only one person at a time could be on break. Health regulations made it illegal to drink water on the line and management was too cheap to buy screens for the windows, which remained shut, even when it was more than 100 degrees outside.

They didn’t like me very much at the Maryland Pacific Cone Company, maybe because I wanted to know why the high school boys who swept the floors made more than the women who, since the end of World War II, had been climbing three rickety flights of stairs to stand by those machines. In any case, management there started messing with my shifts, assigning me to all three in the same week. As you might imagine, I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot and would occasionally resort to those “little white pills” immortalized in the truckers’ song “Six Days on the Road.”

But I’ll never forget one graveyard shift when an angel named Rosie saved my job and my sanity. It was probably three in the morning. I’d been standing under fluorescent lights, scooping, twirling, and boxing for hours when the universe suddenly stood still. I realized at that moment that I’d never done anything else since the beginning of time but put ice cream cones in boxes and would never stop doing so until the end of time.

If time lost its meaning then, dimensions still turned out to matter a lot, because the cones I was working on that night were bigger than I was used to. Soon I was falling behind, while a huge mound of 40-ounce Eat-It-Alls covered my table and began to spill onto the floor. I stared at them, frozen, until I suddenly became aware that someone was standing at my elbow, gently pushing me out of the way.

Rosie, who had been in that plant since the end of World War II, said quietly, “Let me do this. You take my line.” In less than a minute, she had it all under control, while I spent the rest of the night at her machine, with cones of a size I could handle.

I have never been so glad to see the dawn.

The Deadly Reality of the Graveyard Shift

So, when the president of the United States negotiated to get dock workers in Los Angeles to work all night, I felt a twinge of horror. There’s another all-too-literal reason to call it the “graveyard” shift. It turns out that working when you should be in bed is dangerous. Not only do more accidents occur when the human body expects to be asleep, but the long-term effects of night work can be devastating. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, the many adverse effects of night work include:

“type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders. Night shift workers might also have an increased risk for reproductive issues, such as irregular menstrual cycles, miscarriage, and preterm birth. Digestive problems and some psychological issues, such as stress and depression, are more common among night shift workers. The fatigue associated with nightshift can lead to injuries, vehicle crashes, and industrial disasters.”

Some studies have shown that such shift work can also lead to decreased bone-mineral density and so to osteoporosis. There is, in fact, a catchall term for all these problems: shift-work disorder.

In addition, studies directly link the graveyard shift to an increased incidence of several kinds of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer. Why would disrupted sleep rhythms cause cancer? Because such disruptions affect the release of the hormone melatonin. Most of the body’s cells contain little “molecular clocks” that respond to daily alternations of light and darkness. When the light dims at night, the pineal gland releases melatonin, which promotes sleep. In fact, many people take it in pill form as a “natural” sleep aid. Under normal circumstances, such a melatonin release continues until the body encounters light again in the morning.

When this daily (circadian) rhythm is disrupted, however, so is the regular production of melatonin, which turns out to have another important biological function. According to NIOSH, it “can also stop tumor growth and protect against the spread of cancer cells.” Unfortunately, if your job requires you to stay up all night, it won’t do this as effectively.

There’s a section on the NIOSH website that asks, “What can night shift workers do to stay healthy?” The answers are not particularly satisfying. They include regular checkups and seeing your doctor if you have any of a variety of symptoms, including “severe fatigue or sleepiness when you need to be awake, trouble with sleep, stomach or intestinal disturbances, irritability or bad mood, poor performance (frequent mistakes, injuries, vehicle crashes, near misses, etc.), unexplained weight gain or loss.”

Unfortunately, even if you have access to healthcare, your doctor can’t write you a prescription to cure shift-work disorder. The cure is to stop working when your body should be asleep.

An End To Shift Work?

Your doctor can’t solve your shift work issue because, ultimately, it’s not an individual problem. It’s an economic and an ethical one.

There will always be some work that must be performed while most people are sleeping, including healthcare, security, and emergency services, among others. But most shift work gets done not because life depends upon it, but because we’ve been taught to expect our patio furniture on demand. As long as advertising and the grow-or-die logic of capitalism keep stoking the desire for objects we don’t really need, may not even really want, and will sooner or later toss on a garbage pile in this or some other country, truckers and warehouse workers will keep damaging their health.

Perhaps the pandemic, with its kinky supply chain, has given us an opportunity to rethink which goods are so “critical” that we’re willing to let other people risk their lives to provide them for us. Unfortunately, such a global rethink hasn’t yet touched Joe Biden and his administration as they confront an ongoing pandemic, supply-chain problems, a rise in inflation, and — oh yes! — an existential climate crisis that gets worse with every plastic widget produced, packed, and shipped.

It’s time for Biden — and the rest of us — to take a breath and think this through. There are good reasons that so many people are walking away from underpaid, life-threatening work. Many of them are reconsidering the nature of work itself and its place in their lives, no matter what the president or anyone else might wish.

And that’s a paradigm shift we all could learn to live with.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author ofAmerican Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimesand is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

Learning The True Value Of Work Amid The Pandemic

Learning The True Value Of Work Amid The Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

In two weeks, my partner and I were supposed to leave San Francisco for Reno, Nevada, where we'd be spending the next three months focused on the 2020 presidential election. As we did in 2018, we'd be working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, only this time on the campaign to drive Donald Trump from office.

Now, however, we're not so sure we ought to go. According to information prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Nevada is among the states in the "red zone" when it comes to both confirmed cases of, and positive tests for, Covid-19. I'm 68. My partner's five years older, with a history of pneumonia. We're both active and fit (when I'm not tripping over curbs), but our ages make us more likely, if we catch the coronavirus, to get seriously ill or even die. That gives a person pause.

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How The U.S. Created The Central American Migration Crisis

How The U.S. Created The Central American Migration Crisis

It’s hard to believe that more than four years have passed since the police shot Amílcar Pérez-López a few blocks from my house in San Francisco’s Mission District. He was an immigrant, 20 years old, and his remittances were the sole support for his mother and siblings in Guatemala. On February 26, 2015, two undercover police officers shot him six times in the back, although they would claim he’d been running toward them with an upraised butcher knife.

For two years, members of my little Episcopal church joined other neighbors in a weekly evening vigil outside the Mission police station, demanding that the district attorney bring charges against the men who killed Amílcar. When the medical examiner’s office continued to drag its feet on releasing its report, we helped arrange for a private autopsy, which revealed what witnesses had already reported — that he had indeed been running away from those officers when they shot him. In the end, the San Francisco district attorney declined to prosecute the police for the killing, although the city did reach a financial settlement with his family back in Guatemala.

Still, this isn’t really an article about Amílcar, but about why he — like so many hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans in similar situations — was in the United States in the first place. It’s about what drove 225,570 of them to be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2018 and 132,887 of them to be picked up at or near the border in a single month — May — of this year. As Dara Lind observed at Vox, “This isn’t a manufactured crisis, or a politically engineered one, as some Democrats and progressives have argued.”

It is indeed a real crisis, not something the Trump administration simply cooked up to justify building the president’s wall. But it is also absolutely a manufactured crisis, one that should be stamped with the label “made in the U.S.A.” thanks to decades of Washington’s interventions in Central American affairs. Its origins go back at least to 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. In the 1960s, dictatorships would flourish in that country (and elsewhere in the region) with U.S. economic and military backing.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Central Americans began to rise up in response, Washington’s support for right-wing military regimes and death squads, in Honduras and El Salvador in particular, drove thousands of the inhabitants of those countries to migrate here, where their children were recruited into the very U.S. gangs now devastating their countries. In Guatemala, the U.S. supported successive regimes in genocidal wars on its indigenous Mayan majority. To top it off, climate change, which the United States has done the most of any nation to cause (and perhaps the least to forestall or mitigate), has made subsistence agriculture increasingly difficult to sustain in many parts of Central America.

U.S. Actions Have Central American Consequences

Scholars who study migration speak of two key explanations for why human beings leave their homes and migrate: “pull” and “push” factors. Pull factors would include the attractions of a new place, like economic and educational opportunities, religious and political liberties, and the presence there of family, friends, or community members from back home. Push factors driving people from their homes would include war; the drug trade; political, communal, or sexual violence; famine and drought; environmental degradation and climate change; and ordinary, soul-eating poverty.

International law mandates that some, but not all, push factors can confer “refugee” status on migrants, entitling them to seek asylum in other countries. This area of humanitarian law dates from the end of World War II, a time when millions of Europeans were displaced, forcing the world to adjust to huge flows of humanity. The 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as anyone who has

“a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Almost three-quarters of a century later, that legal definition still theoretically underlies U.S. policy toward refugees, but this country has always welcomed some refugees and not others. In the 1980s, for instance, Salvadorans fleeing U.S.-supported death squads had almost no hope of getting asylum here. On the other hand, people leaving the communist island of Cuba had only to put a foot on U.S. territory to receive almost automatic asylum.

Because of its origins in post-war Europe, asylum law has a blind spot when it comes to a number of forces now pushing people to leave their homes. It’s unfortunate that international law makes a distinction, for instance, between people who become refugees because of physical violence and those who do so because of economic violence. A well-founded fear of being shot, beaten, or raped may get you asylum. Actual starvation won’t.

Today, a number of push factors are driving Central Americans from their homes, especially (once again) in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Key among them are political corruption and repression, the power of the drug cartels, and climate change — all factors that, in significant ways, can be traced back to actions of the United States.

According to World Bank figures, in 2016 (the latest year available), El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, 83 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Honduras took second place with 57 per 100,000, while tenth place went to Guatemala, with 27. Mexico wasn’t far behind with 19. (By comparison, with 5.3 per 100,000, the United States was far down the list.)

By any measure, the three Central American nations of what’s sometimes called “the Northern Triangle” are dangerous places to live. Here’s why.

Political repression and violent corruption: Honduras, for example, has long been one of Central America’s poorest and economically most unequal countries. In the 1980s, the United States supported a military-run government there that routinely “disappeared” and tortured its opponents, while the CIA used the country as a training ground for the Contras it backed, who were then fighting the Sandinistas across the border in Nicaragua (who had recently deposed their own U.S.-backed dictator).

By the turn of this century, however, things were changing in Honduras. In 2006, José Manuel Zelaya became president. Although he’d run on a conservative platform, he promptly launched a program of economic and political reforms. These included free public education, an increased minimum wage, low-interest loans for small farmers, the inclusion of domestic workers in the social security system, and a number of important environmental regulations.

In 2009, however, a military coup deposed Zelaya, installing Porfirio Lobo in his place. Four of the six officers who staged the coup were graduates of the U.S.’s notorious School of the Americas, where for decades Latin American military officers and police were trained in the ways of repression and torture.

Washington may not have initiated the coup, but within days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given it her seal of approval, supporting that power grab in defiance of the Organization of American States. Since then, murder rates have skyrocketed, while corruption and drug trafficking have flourished as the drug cartels and local governing bodies, as well as the national government, melded into a single countrywide nightmare. In a recent New York Times report, for instance, Sonia Nazario detailed what this has meant just for public transportation where anyone who operates a taxi or a bus must pay a daily tax (double on special days like Christmas) amounting to 30% to 40% of the driver’s income. But this isn’t a government tax. It goes to MS-13, the 18th Street gang (both of which arose in the United States), or sometimes both. The alternative, as Nazario reports, is death:

“Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.”

The police, despite having all the facts, do next to no­thing. Violence and corruption have only become more intense under Honduras’s current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who returned to office in what was probably a stolen election in 2017. Although the Organization of American States called for a redo, the Trump administration hastily recognizedHernández and life in Honduras continued on its murderous course.

The drug business: Along with coups and Coca-Cola, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is another U.S. import to Central America. Although Donald Trump likes to cast most refugees as dark and dangerous gang members from south of the border, MS-13 had its roots in Los Angeles, California, among Salvadorans who had fled the U.S.-backed dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. When young people who grew up in Los Angeles returned to El Salvador at the end of that country’s civil war, MS-13 went with them. What had begun as a neighborhood street gang created to protect Salvadoran youth from other gangs in that city has now grown into a vast criminal enterprise of its own — as has the 18th Street gang, or Calle 18, which also came out of Los Angeles, following a similar path.

Without a major market for their product, drug cartels would have vastly less power. And we all know where that market lies: right here in the United States. Fifty years of this country’s “war on drugs” turn out to have provided the perfect breeding ground for violent outlaw drug cartels, while filling our own jails and prisons with more inmates than any other country holds. Yet it has done next to nothing to stanch addiction in this country. These days, if they remain in their own lands, many young people in the Northern Triangle face a stark choice between joining a gang and death. Not surprisingly, some of them opt to risk the trip to the U.S. instead. Many could have stayed home if it weren’t for the drug market in this country.

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation: Even if there were no corrupt regimes, no government repression, and no drug wars, people would still be fleeing Central America because climate change has made their way of life impossible. As what the New York Times calls the biggest carbon polluter in history, the United States bears much of the responsibility for crop failures there. The Northern Triangle has long been subject to periods of drought and flooding as part of a natural alternation of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena in the Pacific Ocean. But climate change has prolonged and deepened those periods of drought, forcing many peasants to abandon their subsistence farms. Some in Guatemala are now facing not just economic hardship but actual starvation thanks to a heating planet.

All along a drought corridor that runs from Nicaragua through Guatemala, the problem is a simple lack of water. The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani reports that, in El Salvador, many people now spend their days in search of enough water to keep their families alive. Even where (unsafe) river water is available, the price — in money or sex — extracted by the gangs for using it is often too high for most women to pay, so they are forced to rely on distant municipal taps (if they even exist). While El Salvadorans live with strict water rationing, the U.S.-based multinational Coca Cola remains immune to such rules. That company continues to take all the water it needs to produce and sell its fizzy concoction locally, while pouring foul-smelling effluvia into nearby rivers.

In Honduras, on the other hand, the problem is often too much water, as rising sea levels eat away at both its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, devouring poor people’s homes and small businesses in the process. Here, too, a human-fueled problem is exacerbated by greed in the form of shrimp farming, which decimates coastal mangrove trees that normally help to keep those lands from eroding. Shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States, comes mostly from Southeast Asia and — you guessed it — Central America. Whether it’s shrimp or drugs, the point is that U.S. desires continue to drive devastation in Central America.

As the Trump administration does everything it can to accelerate and deepen the climate crisis, Central Americans are literally dying from it. Under international law, however, if they head for the U.S. in an attempt to save their lives and livelihoods, they don’t qualify as refugees because they are fleeing not physical but economic violence and so are not eligible for asylum.

No Asylum for You

These days, even immigrants with a well-founded fear of persecution who perfectly fit the Geneva Convention’s definition of “refugee” may no longer get asylum here. The Trump administration doesn’t even want to offer them a chance to apply for it. The president has, of course, called such groups of migrants, traveling together for safety and solidarity, an “invasion” of “very bad people.” And his administration continues to take a variety of concrete steps to prevent non-white refugees of just about any sort from reaching U.S. territory to make such a claim.

His early efforts to deter asylum seekers involved the infamous family-separation policy, in which children who arrived at the border were taken from their parents in an effort to create the sort of publicity that would keep others from coming. An international outcry — and a federal court order — brought an official end to that policy in June 2018. At the time, the government was ordered to return such children to their parents.

As it happened, the Department of Homeland Security proved largely incapable of doing so, because quite often it hadn’t kept decent records of the parents’ names or locations. In response to an ACLU lawsuit listing 2,700 individual children living without their families in this country, the administration acknowledged that, in addition to named children, thousands more fell into that category, lost in what can only laughingly be called “the system.”

You might think that, if the goal were to keep people from leaving their homes in the first place, the Trump administration would do what it could to improve life in the Northern Triangle. If so, however, you would be wrong. Far from increasing humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the administration promptly slashed those funds, ensuring yet more misery and undoubtedly forcing yet more to flee Central America.

Its most recent ploy: to require refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they come to after leaving their own. Because Guatemala lies between Mexico and the rest of the Northern Triangle, that means Salvadorans and Hondurans will officially have to apply there first. President Trump even used the threat of new tariffs against Guatemalan goods to negotiate such an agreement with that country’s outgoing president Jimmy Morales to secretly designate his nation a “safe third country” where migrants could apply for asylum.

There is something more than a little ironic in this, given that the Guatemalan government can’t even offer its own people anything like safety. Significant numbers of them have, of course, been fleeing to Mexico and heading for the U.S. border. Trump’s solution to that problem has been to use the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to militarize its own border with Guatemala, in the process frustrating the new administration of President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

On August 1st, a federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction against that “safe third country” policy, prohibiting its use for the time being. For now (at least theoretically), migrants from the Northern Triangle should still be able to apply for asylum in the U.S. The administration will certainly fight the injunction in the courts while doing everything in its power to stop those immigrants in any way it can.

Meanwhile, it has come up with yet another way to prevent people from claiming asylum. Historically, family members of those persecuted in their own countries have been eligible to apply, too. At the end of July, Attorney General William Barr announced that “immigrants fearing persecution because of threats against their family members are no longer eligible for asylum.” This is particularly cruel because, to extort cooperation from their targets, drug gangs routinely make — and carry out — threats of rape and murder against family members.

A Real Crisis

There is indeed a real crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of thousands of people like Amílcar are arriving there seeking refuge from dangers that were, to a significant degree, created by and are now being intensified by the United States. But Donald Trump would rather demonize desperate people than deploy the resources needed to attend to their claims in a timely way — or in any way at all.

It’s time to recognize that the American way of life — our cars and comforts, our shrimp and coffee, our ignorance about our government’s actions in our regional “backyard” — has created this crisis. It should be (but in the age of Trump won’t be) our responsibility to solve it.


Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Copyright 2019 Rebecca Gordon

War Crimes: Pardons For The Lowly, Free Passes At The Top

War Crimes: Pardons For The Lowly, Free Passes At The Top

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Memorial Day has come and gone and President Trump did not issue his pardons after all. There was substantial evidence that he was planning to use the yearly moment honoring the country’s war dead to grant executive clemency to several U.S. soldiers and at least one military contractor. All have been accused, and one already convicted, of crimes in the never-ending war on terror. But apparently Trump received enough resistance from serving and retired senior military officers and former soldiers, including presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, to change his mind — for now.

The Friday before Memorial Day, the president was evidently still undecided but moved, so he told reporters, by his compassion for former fighters who are being “really treated very unfairly.” After all, he explained, “Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long. You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight…” — well, we’re sometimes cruel enough to hold them to the standards set by U.S. and international law. Of course, there are those, including ethics students of mine in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, who might argue that part of the training to be a “great fighter” is learning to obey the laws of war, including, for example, the Geneva Conventions.

Trump has already pardoned one war criminal. On May 6th, he granted full executive clemency to Michael Behenna, convicted in 2009 of murdering an Iraqi prisoner named Ali Mansur Mohammed. Behenna served five years of a 25-year sentence and was paroled in 2014. What did Behenna do to Mansur? Guardian columnist Gary Younge offers some details: “On Mansur’s release Behenna was supposed to take him home, but instead took him to a secluded area, stripped him naked and shot him dead, later claiming Mansur had made a lunge for his gun.” Now, Behenna has a presidential pardon and Ali Mansur Mohammed is still dead.

Who else is in line for a possible pardon? The list includes Nicholas Slatten, a former contractor for Blackwater, twice convicted of murder in federal court for his part in the infamous Nisour Square massacre of 14 civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Blackwater, you may recall, was a mercenary outfit owned until 2010 by Erik Prince, a Trump confidant and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Also under consideration for pardons:

  • Army Major Matthew Golsteyn, a Green Beret accused of murdering an unarmed Afghan
  • Navy Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, accused among other things of “stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death, picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost,” and “indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods [in Mosul, Iraq] with rockets and machine-gun fire,” according to the New York Times

Trump seems to have taken an interest in Gallagher’s case as early as this March, when he tweeted, “In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!” For once, Trump wasn’t lying and soon afterwards he ordered the Navy to release the prisoner from the brig while he awaits trial. Gallagher is now merely restricted to his base.

Both military figures and civilians have expressed disgust at Trump’s Memorial Day pardon talk. Some, like Buttigieg, argue that pardons for war crimes endanger those now serving in the military. “If the president blows a hole in” the military justice system, the Democratic candidate for president told the Washington Post, “he is blowing a hole in the military and he is putting troops’ lives at risk” by signaling to adversaries that the United States is not bound by the laws of war, so they needn’t be either.

Other critics point to potential harm to the integrity of the military justice system, which requires that military commanders refrain from seeking to influence ongoing judicial processes. Presumably the category of “military commanders” includes the commander-in-chief. Yet Trump has done just that, most recently by telling reporters he might wait until after the trials are over to consider issuing those pardons, a pretty strong signal to the courts of the outcomes he’d like to see.

Outrageous as these potential and actual pardons may be, even the most outraged of observers continue to avoid a more significant issue: only relatively low-level soldiers and contractors have been held responsible for crimes committed in the war on terror. With all the recent discussion of pardons and war crimes, who’s talking about holding responsible the authors of the policies that put those soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place? (Or, for that matter, in Syria, Yemen, Niger, or any of the other acknowledged and unacknowledged battlefields in our forever wars?) If the crime is big enough — like creating or countenancing a U.S. torture archipelago that stretched from Thailand to Poland to Guantánamo Bay, or lying to the world to justify launching an aggressive war on Iraq — the risk of trial is nonexistent. No pardons required.

Should pictures surface of you tormenting Iraqis in some foreign prison like Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, as Army reservists Charles Graner and Lynndie Englanddid, you might indeed end up in jail for a while and become the possible object of a presidential pardon. If, however, you’re Major General Geoffrey Miller, who ran the Guantánamo prison for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — well, you’re a hero. In 2003, Rumsfeld dispatched Miller from Cuba to take charge of U.S. military prisons in Iraq, especially Abu Ghraib, and to “Gitmo-ize them,” which he certainly did. And if you’re Donald Rumsfeld himself, who approved the use of torture at Guantánamo in an infamous December 2002 memo requested by Miller, you’re an elder statesman and honored philanthropist.

War Crimes and Cover-Ups

Of course, the war on terror isn’t the first American conflict in which higher-ups have escaped responsibility for war crimes. I was only 17 in November 1969, but I still remember when investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He recounted the events of a day of horror in March 1968 when a small band of U.S. soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley, systematically murdered somewhere between 350 and 570 Vietnamese civilians, all of them old men, women, or children. It would later emerge that, in addition to shoving Vietnamese peasants into ditches and machine gunning them, executing people kneeling outside a temple, setting fire to homes, and shooting people as they ran out to escape the flames, soldiers raped many women and girls.

A witness told Hersh, “They didn’t put up a fight or anything. The women huddled against their children and took it. They brought their kids real close to their stomachs and hugged them, and put their bodies over them trying to save them. It didn’t do much good.”

Alone among the 26 servicemen tried for My Lai, Lieutenant Calley was convicted in 1971 of murder. All the rest were acquitted. Calley was sentenced to life in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, later reduced to 20 years.  However, in a move that would presage Donald Trump’s order to release Eddie Gallagher, the day after Calley’s conviction, President Richard Nixon arranged for him to be moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he lived under house arrest until his parole a mere three-and-a-half years later.

As Nick Turse revealed in the Nation 40 years later, My Lai was no aberration. It was part of a larger operation calledSpeedy Express, conceived at the highest military levels, involving civilian murders committed across a wide swath of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. As Turse wrote in 2008:

“From December 1968 through May 1969, a large-scale operation was carried out by the Ninth Infantry Division, with support from nondivision assets ranging from helicopter gunships to B-52 bombers. The offensive, known as Operation Speedy Express, claimed an enemy body count of 10,899 at a cost of only 267 American lives. Although guerrillas were known to be well armed, the division captured only 748 weapons.”

Quoting an anonymous sergeant who in 1970 wrote a 10-page letter to Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland, Turse added that

“these killings all took place for one reason: ‘the General in charge and all the commanders, riding us all the time to get a big body count. Nobody ever gave direct orders to “shoot civilians” that I know of, but the results didn’t show any different than if… they had ordered it. The Vietnamese were dead, victims of the body count pressure and nobody cared enough to try to stop it.'”

No one was ever prosecuted for the crimes of Operation Speedy Express and only William Calley was ever convicted for the horrors of My Lai, themselves but one example of what Westmoreland’s anonymous correspondent called, “a My Lay [sic] each month for over a year.” Indeed, the expression “a Lieutenant Calley” came to signify a low-level scapegoat for war crimes ordered (however implicitly) by higher ups who managed to keep their hands — and their legacies — clean of the taint of atrocity.

Of course, no high-ranking officer, cabinet-level official, or U.S. president would ever stand trial for the crimes of the Vietnam War. Not for the extensive use of the incendiary napalm against defenseless civilians; not for the CIA’s infamous Phoenix Program in which between 20,000 and 40,000Vietnamese were murdered (often after being tortured); not for the carpet bombing of parts of North Vietnam and significant parts of South Vietnam; not for the deaths of as many as two million civilians in North and South Vietnam.

Remember Nuremberg?

The United States was not always so reluctant to put national leaders on trial for their war crimes. That’s exactly what this country, along with the other three “Great Powers” of World War II — France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — did when they tried high-ranking Nazis and their enablers at Nuremberg.

In his opening remarks at the first Nuremberg trials in 1945, Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the United States (and an associate justice of the Supreme Court), issued a warning: “We must not forget that the record on which we judge the defendants today is the record on which we will be judged tomorrow.”

As it turned out, he was wrong. The practices established at Nuremberg, and the understandings behind them, later codified in the 1950 Nuremberg Principles, have not proved to be the record by which U.S. actions in war, whether in Vietnam or in today’s never-ending war on terror, have been judged. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a look at those ideas, because they provide an excellent basis for assessing just who are the real war criminals still walking among us.

Nuremberg established the principle that the international laws of war are real laws and that breaking them is a real crime. That’s what the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, was created to adjudicate — even though the United States quickly removed itself from the ICC in 2002, the year it began functioning. It was then that President George W. Bush’s top officials started getting nervous about their new CIA torture program. And lest we think of that as ancient history, remember that it was John Bolton, President Trump’s current national security advisor, who delivered the newsto the United Nations that the U.S. was leaving the court.

Under the Nuremberg Principles, even heads of state or other high government officials are not immune from prosecution for war crimes or crimes against humanity, nor can anyone be exonerated for them on the sole grounds of a superior’s orders. (That defense was nevertheless used by the My Lai killers and some of those President Trump is now thinking about pardoning.)

Before the Nuremberg tribunals could begin, the organizers had to decide what the charges would be. They settled on three major kinds of offense, which still frame the way we think about war crimes today. The first (which generated the most disagreement among the four Great Powers) was “crimes against peace” — in other words, involvement in launching a war of aggression. The French and the Soviets were dubious about trying Nazi officials for a crime that wasn’t explicitly identified in international law when the war started. Ironically, in view of this country’s twenty-first-century wars, it was Robert Jackson, backed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who in 1945 argued that all the rest of Germany’s war crimes sprang from this initial crime of waging an unprovoked war of aggression. In short (and logically enough), no war, no war crimes.

“War crimes” — violations of the laws of war such as mistreatment, torture, or execution of prisoners, or disproportionate harm to civilians — formed the second category. The third was, like the first, a new kind of crime made necessary by the unprecedented genocide of the Holocaust, and it was called “crimes against humanity.”

As I argued in my book American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, there’s a sense in which most of the crimes of the U.S. war on terror — the tortures, the drone assassinations, the hundreds of thousands of pointless civilian deaths, the millions of people displaced and turned into refugees — sprang from the determination of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his coterie of neocons to commit a crime against peace by invading Iraq. (Some of his acolytes like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton have ominously resurfaced in the Trump administration and have been doing their best lately to gin up new wars of aggression against Venezuela and Iran.)

Some (myself among them) have argued that the invasion of Afghanistan was also a crime against peace. Starting what has become the longest war in U.S. history was not the only option available to the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. It could have, for example, treated them as a horrendous crime, rather than an act of war, and used international channels like the International Criminal Court to prosecute those responsible. It could have continued its negotiations with the Taliban government for the extradition of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. After all, the Trump administration is talking to the Taliban now. How many lives might have been saved with a little more patience in 2001?

In any case, U.S. war crimes, including torture, sprang from the desire to invade Iraq. Within a few days of the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were already pushing for a war against Iraq, according to George W. Bush’s autobiography. At a Camp David “war council” held four days later, Bush wrote, Rumsfeld told him that “dealing with Iraq would show a major commitment to antiterrorism.”

As many of its victims have reported, one of the original purposes of the CIA’s infamous torture program (and its archipelago of “black sites” around the planet) was not to prevent further attacks on the United States, but to get someone, anyone, to admit to a connection between Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. (There was none, of course.)

One of those prisoners was a Libyan named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who was shipped to Egypt and waterboarded until he agreed to the proposition that, as President George W. Bush put it in an October 2002 speech to the nation, “Iraq has trained al-Qaeda in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.” In the same speech, Bush even explained where he got this “information,” saying, “Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.” Secretary of State Colin Powell then repeated this claim in an infamous speech to the U.N. Security Council justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Al-Libi later recanted, saying his statement implicating Iraq had been forced out of him under torture, but by then, of course, Washington’s war in Iraq was well underway.

The Other War Criminals

If the United States had been judged by the standard set at Nuremberg, people of much higher position than Eddie Gallagher would be lining up today for Trump pardons. The list would be long indeed, but would certainly include President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft, and Zalmay Khalilzad, who was Bush’s ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq and is presently serving as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.

Meanwhile, our current criminal president contemplates pardoning the small fry, even as he orders an investigation into the agencies that had the temerity to investigate the Russian hacking of the 2016 election. We can only hope that one day soon he also finds himself in need of a pardon — like the one President Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon after he avoided impeachment by resigning from office.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

IMAGE: Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2011, photo by  Gage Skidmore via Flickr.