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The Public Be Damned

In 1882 financial tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was asked by reporters whether his railroad would introduce express service “for the public benefit.” Vanderbilt reportedly responded, “The public be damned.” His reaction to the ensuing uproar was that he had been “misreported and misrepresented.” Sound familiar?

Private wealth and public office don’t inherently lead to a “public be damned” stance. But there often does seem to be a remarkable relationship between the two. Hillary Clinton’s latest email problems once again reveal a politician eager to skirt the spirit if not the letter of the law, arranging in advance to control access to her public record as she most assuredly was laying plans for a presidential run. Illinois congressman Bob Shock showed a similar disregard, using tens of thousands of public dollars to renovate his office “Downton Abbey style” and to fly a private jet to attend a Bears game. His latest escapade was spending public money to take himself and ten – ten! – staffers to New York to an event honoring the Prime Minister of India. I’m sure Mr. Modi was impressed.

Misreported. Misrepresented. And, when caught, invariably misunderstood. In the grand scheme of thing these are all relatively minor instances of thumbing the nose at the public for the sake of private or personal benefit. We’re rather numbed to the public be damned approach of the privileged class. But what happens when this becomes public policy in one of the most egregious misuses of power in recent history? I refer to the sanction and use of torture during the post-9/11 years. No one got rich off of this exercise of privilege save for a few private “contractors.” But prisoners were brutalized and some died. The innocent were traumatized. Foreign governments were made complicit in illegal activity. The rule of law was mocked. The integrity of our intelligence services, the military, and the Department of Justice was undermined. Our image in the world was severely damaged.

In December, after much delay and censoring, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a Report documenting our sins. And what happened? Well, not much. The Senate, now under Republican control, is trying to get the Administration to return all copies of the uncensored report, undoubtedly intending to bury them. The President resolutely refuses to call any of the perpetrators to account whether it be former CIA officials who carried out the program, Justice Department lawyers who wrote shocking “legal” briefs authorizing it, or a President and Vice President who ordered it. Access to justice for those abused has been consistently denied by prosecutors and judges under the guise of “state secrecy.” The Report and its findings have, in essence, been sent off to their own black site; the most massive recent instance of human rights abuse by the United States will disappear.   The public be damned.

Why raise this now? Last week in the annual report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein offered the U.S. this challenge:

“In the United States, the Senate report on torture in the context of counter-terrorism operations is courageous and commendable, but profoundly disturbing. For a country that believes so strongly in human rights to have swiftly abandoned their fundamentals at a time of crisis is as astonishing as it is deplorable. And yet few other countries have had the courage to likewise publicly investigate and publicly admit to rights abuses resulting from counter-terror operations – and many should. Under international law, the report’s recommendations must be followed through with real accountability. There is no prescription for torture, and torture cannot be amnestied.”

Sadly, the U.S. public seems relatively content to have this whole sorry episode fade from memory. If not amnestied, then at least anesthetized, even euthanazed, it seems. The High Commissioner reminds us, however, that there is a larger public. In theory, at least, this implies the need for accountability to a moral compass that transcends narrow political and national self-interest. That those responsible for our nation’s integrity feel little need to be accountable to the U.S. public is sad. That we are willing to ignore the larger public is dangerous. At the very least it undercuts any ability to challenge others whose human rights abuses are even more horrific.

Controlling the public record with a private email account and entertaining guests in a Congressional office decorated like a Victorian bordello bespeak of entitlement born of the notion that the public can be damned because the public doesn’t really care. When it comes to the U.S. torture program no one can claim to have been “misreported” and “misrepresented.” That the President and the leaders of the Senate are still willing to say, “the public be damned,” is both shocking and profoundly disappointing. For these crimes, absent the repentance reparations and accountability offer, the public may, in fact, be damned.

John H. Thomas
March 12, 2015

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