Impunity in the Billionaire Class and the National Security State

From Wall Street to the Pentagon, the recent era has seen high-level impunity soar. (Image: Parker Bros.)

Impunity in the Billionaire Class and the National Security State

What a scam! Noam Scheiber and Patricia Cohen described it this way in a front-page New York Times report on how a small group of incredibly wealthy Americans funded their way into another tax universe: "Operating largely out of public view -- in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service -- the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government's ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans."

Yes, you read that correctly: tiny numbers of Americans live on a different tax planet from the rest of us. They've paid for the privilege, of course, and increasingly for the political class that oversees how our country runs. They've insulated themselves in a largely tax-free zone that ensures their "equality" before the law (such as it is) and your deepening inequality before the same -- and before them. Their actions have garnered them the ultimate in impunity. In this election season in a country of more than 300 million people, for instance, a mere 158 families (and the companies they control) are putting their (largely tax-free) dollars where our mouths once were. By October, they had provided almost half the money thus far raised by presidential candidates in a move meant to ensure that American democracy becomes their system, their creature. ("Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision five years ago.")

My dictionary defines "impunity" simply enough as "exemption from punishment, penalty, or harm." That's a striking trait for those who lord it over us. In the most incarcerated nation on Earth, with close to 25% of the globe's prison population, there are seemingly no bars strong enough to hold our economic elites or, for that matter, their national security brethren.

The U.S. national security state, like the billionaire class, has grown ever richer and become ever more entrenched in these years, while similarly extracting itself from what was once the American political and legal system. Its officials now exist in a world of secrecy in which, in the name of our "safety," ever fewer of their acts are open to our scrutiny. They inhabit what can only be thought of as a crime-free zone. No act they commit, no matter how extralegal or illegal, will evidently ever land them in a court of law. They have, in essence, total impunity. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the CIA's massive, extralegal operation to kidnap "terror suspects" (often enough, as it turned out, innocent civilians) and deliver them to the torture chambers of brutal allies or to a system of "black sites" off the coast of normal justice. Lying to Congress, hacking congressional computers, and assassinating American citizens have all been green-lighted. No one was ever punished. When necessary, in the secret corridors of power, officials of the national security state simply mobilize lawyers to reinterpret the law of the land to their taste.

When it comes to impunity, their record has been the equal of anything the billionaire class has done. And none of it was more impressive, in its own way, than the use of obviously illegal methods of torture, euphemistically termed "enhanced interrogation techniques," against helpless prisoners in a secret global prison system, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reminds us today. You want war crimes? Post-9/11, Washington could have sported the logo: War Crimes "R" Us. If you want to understand what this sort of impunity means in terms of the politics of 2016, then read Gordon's latest piece, "America Revisits the Dark Side."

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