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Host, Jonathan Hafetz:
The United States was founded on the principle that no individual is above the law. We are, as John Adams said, “a nation of laws, not men.” But that principle is under assault, as Glenn Greenwald explains in his powerful new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.
The United States has two sets of rules: those that apply to the rich and powerful; and those that apply to everyone else. Greenwald details how the country’s financial and political elites have twisted and manipulated the law to escape responsibility for even the most egregious crimes. The rise of elite immunity over the last four decades, Greenwald explains, has corroded the country’s institutions and legal and political culture. It not only threatens the ideals on which the United States was built, but also produces widespread disaffection among the public, which manifests itself in a variety of ways, including, most recently, in the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Greenwald, one of the nation’s leading liberal commentators, has been covering these issues for years at Salon.com. Unafraid to speak the truth to power, Greenwald has consistently exposed the hypocrisy beneath United States’ commitment to the rule of law, whether he is writing about the “war on terror,” the politicization of Department of Justice, or the Wall Street bailout. With Liberty and Justice for Some weaves these stories together into a powerful indictment of a nation that has lost its way.
The book begins with the origins of elite immunity, which Greenwald traces to early precedents such as Ford’s pardon of Nixon and the Iran-Contra affair under Reagan. Greenwald then describes how elite immunity has spread through the public and private sectors and Republican and Democratic administrations alike. In an illuminating, if troubling, case study, Greenwald explains how Congress, with the support of the Bush administration, immunized the nation’s largest telecommunications companies from liability for their role in the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program that illegally eavesdropped on the phone calls of hundreds if not thousands of American citizens. Greenwald also documents the failure to hold accountable the banking and financial leaders who helped cause the current economic crisis; a number of those individuals were instead rewarded with appointments to top government positions in the Obama administration. Greenwald next details the United States’ failure to prosecute senior Bush administration officials for their role in torture and other war crimes committed in the “war on terror.” In place of accountability, America has witnessed the rebirth of the Nixonian vision of unchecked executive power—that if the president does it, it must be legal. Any blame for these crimes has instead been assigned to the least powerful, the low-level military officers who simply implemented the illegal policies designed by senior officials.
In his final chapter, Greenwald turns to the terrible irony at the heart of his story: that while elites routinely evade sanction, average citizens are subject to the one of the most draconian criminal justice systems in the world. The United States incarcerates far more people and for longer periods of time than almost every other country, including for nonviolent crimes for which other Western nations rarely if ever impose jail terms, from petty drug offenses to writing bad checks. Not surprisingly, in a country where criminal justice outcomes are heavily influenced by a person’s relative wealth and power, U.S. crime and sentencing laws have the severest impact on racial minorities and the country’s poorest.
With Liberty and Justice for Some should spark the kind of outrage that books like Gulliver’s Travels evoked in their time. But With Liberty and Justice for Some is not satire. As Greenwald explains, it is one thing to have inequalities in wealth and power in a democracy. It is quite another thing, however, when the law is applied is such a vastly uneven manner to shield the powerful from punishment for their crimes. Greenwald’s book is essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of law and justice in the United States.