Something extraordinary happened in the United States in early May. An ordinary citizen took on the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, at a public meeting and won. Ray McGovern, a retired, former CIA analyst, stood up at the end of an address by Rumsfeld and asked him, straight out, why he had lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. This would have taken considerable courage, given Rumsfeld’s reputation as a political mauler.
The question almost got nowhere. Immediately after Rumsfeld had responded by saying baldly that he ‘had not lied’, McGovern was manhandled by two security guards and propelled forcibly towards the exit. ‘So this is America!’ he declaimed. Rumsfeld, to his credit, instructed the security men to let him speak.
McGovern had not come unprepared. He told Rumsfeld again that he had lied. Before the war, Rumsfeld had said that he knew where the weapons were in Baghdad, Tikrit, Basra and a number of other locations. Rumsfeld shot back that he had never said that. He said that he’d been ‘informed’ that they were there. But, Rumsfeld concluded, ‘it appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there’; a half-hearted concession at best.
After the interchange, journalists scurried to find the relevant quotes. And McGovern was proved right, not just on this but on other challenges he had issued during the exchange.
Rumsfeld has said on many occasions that there were WMD in Iraq. On 27 September 2002, he added that that there was bulletproof evidence of links between al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime. A fortnight ago, when McGovern asked him what that evidence was, Rumsfeld said unconvincingly that al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been in Baghdad before the September 11 attacks. McGovern corrected him again al-Zarqawi had been holed up in northern Iraq at the time, on quite another mission.
When pressed, Rumsfeld fell back on the intelligence failure argument. ‘I’m not in the intelligence business’, he said. This defies the facts. The Defence Department is the Bush Administration’s biggest user of intelligence. Following disagreements with the CIA and State Department, Rumsfeld also set up his own intelligence gathering capacity within Defence. It was a more pliable informant. And it was this intelligence unit’s advice that founded the Administration’s many subsequent, misleading and erroneous assessments. And the actions based upon them.
It was the culmination of another bad week for the Secretary. And McGovern became an instant celebrity.
All this occurred in a week where there was mounting speculation that the US may launch a pre-emptive strike against nuclear installations in Iran. This follows the International Atomic Energy Agency’s finding that Iran had drastically curtailed its co-operation with nuclear inspectors and had sped up its work on nuclear enrichment.
A dangerous conflict is brewing. Iran’s failure to comply with a UN deadline to freeze its nuclear enrichment program means that the Security Council will meet soon to consider what further steps to take including diplomacy and sanctions. Iran, for its part, has stated categorically that it will ignore negative Security Council resolutions affirming its entitlement, under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue the peaceful development of nuclear energy, and threatening to withdraw from the Treaty if the UN intervenes.
So much for negotiation.
The US is proceeding cautiously. Both President George W Bush and his UN Ambassador, John Bolton, have been very careful to say that they believe it would be best to reach a diplomatic solution. But Bolton told a US Senate committee that, in order to be credible, the Security Council must be willing to take appropriate action. If it is not willing, Bolton added, it may be left to a coalition of States who do take the matter seriously to act instead.
So much for international law.
Should such action eventuate, however, one can only hope that the intelligence upon which it is based will be better than that available to the Administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.
It was also a big week for the ordinary person in the USA. Twelve ordinary people, sitting as a jury, determined that Zacarias Moussaoui, the man convicted of playing a minor part in the preparation of the September 11 attacks, should not be subjected to capital punishment. Instead, Moussaoui will spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
Given the tidal waves of emotion surrounding this issue in the US, this was a most courageous decision.
Unsurprisingly, the jury was excoriated. Fox News Channel went ballistic, and even on the more liberal CNN, the sentiment of both presenters and callers, was uncomprehending, bitter and hostile.
It is an intriguing feature of the American judicial system that in such cases, juries are required to fill out a form indicating on which of several specified grounds they based their decision. Here, nine of the jury decided that Moussaoui’s dysfunctional childhood should count as a mitigating factor. Nine also decided that his abuse at the hands of a violent father should carry weight. Four jurors thought the fact that Moussaoui’s father and two of his sisters had suffered from psychotic illness was significant. Three more observed, perhaps most pertinently of all, that his role in the preparation of the attacks had been negligible.
On any account, Moussaoui is an appalling character. He overflowed with hatred throughout his trial. In the midst of his ranting, he demonstrated no remorse whatsoever. When confronted by one witness, whose partner had been killed on September 11 and who told him that her life had been shattered, Moussaoui responded that she should think of the lives shredded by the CIA. Upon the announcement of the sentence of life imprisonment, Moussaoui shouted, ‘I’ve won, you lost’.
He was wrong. The American justice system won. It demonstrated, at least in this case, that someone as awful as Moussaoui, could still receive a fair trial. As the New York Times put it, ‘The whole world was able to watch this country’s judicial system struggling gamely and fairly toward a proper conclusion, upholding the principle that even semi-deranged outsiders who claim to rejoice in the deaths of more than 2000 innocent civilians deserve their day in court.’
The 12 jurors who stood against the overwhelming public sentiment deserve very considerable credit.
It is interesting to note, however, that not once in the furore that accompanied the Moussaoui decision did I hear any commentator or expert question the appropriateness of the death penalty. In the current emotional, political environment that is a step too far.
And one more thing. A short article appeared in the American press reporting on a major initiative by the Canadian Government. The newly elected Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, announced that some 80,000 Native Americans (or First Nations) would be compensated for their mistreatment and abuse at the hands of governmental and church schools.
For a century prior to the 1980s, as part of a policy of forced assimilation, Government authorities had taken children from their First Nations families and placed them in schools across the country, in which they had been treated harshly and punitively among other things, for speaking their own language or practising their own religion. Sexual abuse had also been widespread.
The agreement negotiated between Government, churches and the leaders of the First Nations community will provide compensation of about AUD$25,000 to each of the 80,000 people identified as having suffered. It is one of the largest compensation settlements in Canada’s history.
How shamefully do we in Australia behave in comparison? And according to what moral compass, except one that points exclusively to ourselves?
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