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In Secret, With Contempt

"You know, I've been around the ruling class all my life, and I've been quite aware of their total contempt for the people of the country." – Gore Vidal

January 16, 2009
By Rob Lafferty

Former Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan spoke before a Congressional committee towards the end of 2008, saying he'd made a mistake when he assumed "...that enlightened self-interest alone would prevent bankers, mortgage brokers, investment bankers and others from gaming the system for their own personal financial benefit."

The pursuit of one's own selfish interests at the expense of others is an almost universal human trait; apparently Greenspan believed that money managers were somehow more ethical or moral or sensible than common folk. His decisions affected the lives of millions but were based on assumptions without any common reality to support them.

In that, he's certainly not alone. Many of our Captains of Commerce and Governance hold themselves to a loose set of standards that they would never allow the rest of humanity to operate by. They do so because their peers have demonstrated time after time that it can be done, that a complicit society allows the upper class to operate outside of the law so long as they remain discreet. It's no surprise that they hold such a system with contempt even as they take full advantage of it.

Bernie Madoff swindled billions of dollars mostly from rich people and charity groups over two decades despite eight – eight! – investigations by the SEC that found nothing wrong with his books. He got caught only when he ran out of cash. Madoff was placed under penthouse arrest in his luxury apartment from where he promptly shipped off a few million dollars worth of household jewelry to relatives as Hanukkah gifts before the loot could be confiscated and sold to provide some small compensation for his victims. His bail was not revoked after that little bit of added larceny, and so he lives at home instead of sitting in jail.

But as Madoff pushed his way through swarms of news cameras outside his home on two consecutive days came also the news and video of the shooting of two unarmed and innocent young men. Detained by security forces in different circumstances, both were shot under the presumption of legal authority. One was killed by a security guard's bullet while seated on the ground, the other wounded while lying in his own driveway after being detained by police for suspicion of auto theft. The car he was accused of stealing was actually his own; he was shot in the chest – with his mother watching – when he objected to her being thrown against her own garage wall by the same officer who then shot him.

Those two realities have nothing in common except that both could have been prevented. One was a tragedy and the other a travesty, yet they illustrate just how far 21st Century America has to go before it can claim to be a civilized society. An innocent Robbie Tolan lies in a hospital bed with a hole in his lung and a bullet in his liver; a guilty Bernie Madoff can sip his favorite wine and savor the view from high above the scene of his crime while he awaits a show trial. Madoff will probably spend a few years in a minimum security prison, but Tolan will feel the effects of his wounds for a lifetime.

Society can't do much about the tragedies that life brings to us all, but it certainly could try harder to prevent the ones it can. We should be able to hold predators fully accountable and we should be able to properly screen and train our armed security people. Those are two basic functions of any civilization, but we've not had much success at those tasks during the past century or so. The attitude of contempt which Gore Vidal speaks of has reverberated down through our legal system into the foundations of the law itself. It influences our domestic and foreign policy until almost all of our National Affairs benefit a few at the expense of the many.

And in that, we're certainly not alone. The social-religious conflict in the Middle East has nothing to do with injustice in America, except that contempt is a driving force in both dramas. Hamas fires rockets from Gaza into Israel; Israel sends tank shells back into Gaza; which side fired first depends upon who you ask. Innocent children die on both sides of the border. Israel has better weapons, so a hundred Palestinians die for each Israeli killed. Both sides agree to a three-hour cease-fire and allow aid workers to enter Gaza, then the shelling begins again. What kind of strange madness is that?

"OK, we've agreed to not fire weapons at each other this morning so relief people can send food trucks in and bring the wounded out, but you'd best make it quick – the mortars and rockets and bombings begin again at noon."

Even a global coalition of nations can't expect to resolve a multi-layered, centuries-old conflict based in the Holy Lands of three major religions. An effective United Nations could help by reducing the flood of weapons found on the open market, but that's not the UN we have today. And there's always a buyer's market full of those who want to eliminate the Other, plenty of ammo for those who believe they can kill all of the Enemy if they try hard enough. That was possible in ancient tribal warfare, perhaps, but not in our time. The Enemy has access to that same weaponry and there's a lot more of them around...

In the week before Halloween last year, the Congressional Research Service published its annual report on arms transfers around the globe. Entitled "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2000-2007," the report shows that in 2007 the U.S. reclaimed its customary position ahead of Russia as the top arms supplier on the planet.

The CRS report looked at sales of tanks, artillery, combat aircraft and boats, missiles and armored personnel carriers and a half dozen other categories of weapons. Their numbers show global arms sales reached almost $60 billion in 2007 – and the U.S. led the way with $24.8 billion of that business. Increased sales to Latin American countries kept Russia's $10.4 billion total just ahead of the UK and its $9.8 billion in new agreements. Those three nations controlled nearly 75 percent of the global traffic in weapons.

All that commerce, in products that produce mostly misery, done mostly by American companies. The demand exists, however, and profits can be made by people who won't feel the devastation they helped cause. At the heart of that behavior is a contempt for all the Others, for those ordinary folks who will die from shells fired by those weapons, for the masses who don't really matter in the grand scheme of Life among the Power Elite.

That long-standing contempt has become a corporate attitude now, one that's reflected in the behavior of most major corporations towards people and the planet in general. Here's one example:

Shell Oil has been conducting a shale oil extraction experiment at a test site in Colorado. By sinking heaters nearly half mile down into seams within the oil shale and heating the rock to 700 degrees, a liquid kerogen is produced, extracted and refined into diesel fuel and jet fuel. The area of hot rock is surrounded by thick walls of ice frozen into place with refrigeration units designed to keep the brew from leaching out into the surrounding groundwater.

That's a high-cost, high-risk operation regardless of the market price for oil. It’s an invasive approach that feels like an environmental disaster waiting to happen. It's the kind of effort that might be justified in pursuit of a rare and valuable commodity, but oil is still abundant while biofuels are the wave of the future. Despite wildly fluctuating prices and increased demand across the globe, you probably didn't hear of gasoline shortages in your area or anywhere else in the developed world last year.

Shell's attitude seems to be, "So what? There's oil there and we think we can extract it, so we intend to try."

But corporations acting with contempt towards the people who pay for their products isn’t news to us anymore. It's just an ugly event like so many others, we accept it because we don't have much choice and we move on – or at least some of us do. When our government shows its contempt for the citizens who actually own it, however, it's seldom in the news because so much of what our government does is kept secret.

You won't read or hear details about the once-secret wiretapping programs of the NSA and CIA and FBI that involve scanning almost all overseas phone calls and emails along with a lot of domestic telecommunications traffic. It doesn't help to know that Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, has described that behavior as "...only one program of many highly secret programs approved by Bush following the attacks on 9/11. This is the only aspect of those various activities whose existence has officially been acknowledged."

Secrecy is the final contempt a government can show its citizens. Only the gravest matters of national security deserve a blanket of secrecy, and only as long as necessary. If more of the truth were known about how our government behaves around the world and behind closed doors, we might stop doing certain things that are shameful for a modern society.

The Truth won't set us Free, but it might show us where Freedom lives. We almost found our way there, once or twice before in our national history. Perhaps this time we'll get close enough to taste it...

Rob Lafferty is a former editor of the Haleakala Times. He can be reached via email at rob@moonvalleypress.com