The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Curious Case of Bowe Bergdahl

On March 16, 2006 -- at the height of the Iraqi insurgency -- five soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment went to the home of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. 

The five men were part of a six-man team manning the checkpoint.  They left the post with just one soldier remaining on duty, who did not report their absence.  They changed into civilian clothes.  When they arrived at Abeer's home, they separated her from her mother, father, and six-year old sister.  They shot the three family members and gang-raped Abeer, who was either a teenager or in her early 20s. 

When they were finished raping her, they shot her multiple times, poured kerosene on her bullet-riddled body, and set her body on fire.  They then returned to their checkpoint.  The fire alerted neighbors, who brought Iraqi troops to the scene.  The Iraqis alerted the Americans, including one of the soldiers who was responsible for what happened.  The Americans told the Iraqis it was the work of Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. military began investigating the matter on July 4, after the soldier who had stayed behind at the checkpoint told a friend about the murder and that friend revealed it during a counselling session.  Ultimately, all five men were convicted and given lengthy jail sentences -- but that came in August 2007, more than a year later.

I was outraged when the details of what happened were made public.  I was outraged when the perpetrators were brought back to the United States instead of being tried by a court-martial convened in Iraq.  I was outraged when they were sentenced to jail more than a year later, rather than being hanged in plain view so that the Iraqis could see we had dealt with the matter.

On June 16, 2006, a 101st Airborne checkpoint was overrun, and two soldiers were killed.  A group called the Mujahideen Shura Council released a video of the soldiers' bodies and claimed it was retribution for Abeer's rape and murder.  Further killings followed, including the downing of an Apache gunship, and all were attributed to Abeer's rape and murder.  The rape and murder of Abeer and her family drove a country already in turmoil into a frenzy, feeding the insurgency that was already costing American blood and treasure.  The long delay in bringing charges and holding a trial fed the sense that Americans who would shoot Iraqis on suspicion held themselves as being outside the scope of justice. 

The actions of these soldiers directly fueled the entire Iraqi insurgency and affected many American lives.   And for all of that, there was very, very little attention paid to the monstrous actions of these men by anyone I know.  I was the only one talking about it on Facebook.  News coverage was limited; political reaction was muted.  Several people responding to news articles chalked it up to "war is hell," as if this were somehow a military action rather than a crime.  No one was even interested in these troops' having abandoned their checkpoint and exposed other soldiers to greater risk.  It just wasn't interesting to anyone I encountered.



Fast forward to June 2014.  The nation is ablaze over the matter of the negotiated release of one Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who is believed to have walked away from his unit while out in the field in Afghanistan.  Bergdahl's absence did not endanger anyone; there are claims that soldiers may have died looking for him, but if they did, they were searching for him because he was missing, not because he was a deserter.  He apparently had wandered off before (and come back), and early reports that he left a letter saying he was deserting are not backed up by investigative records.  After being captured by the Taliban, Bergdahl also attempted to escape twice over the course of the five years that he was held by the Haqqani network in Pakistan.  (The second time, he made it to a border village...where the inhabitants turned him back over to the Haqqanis.)

SGT Bergdahl's freedom has now been secured.  There are questions regarding the manner in which the Obama administration traded the release of five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo for the release.  The questions, however, relate to a matter of public law: President Obama is obligated by law to tell Congress about any release of inmates from Guantanamo 30 days prior to the event, which he did not do, and which his administration has asserted he need not because of a signing statement he added to the bill when it became law in which he claimed "flexibility" on that provision. 

We need to look at the notion that the President can sign a bill into law (rather than vetoing it) while effectively exempting his administration from following that law.  We needed to look at it when President Bush used such a statement to exempt his administration from a law restricting use of torture.  Unfortunately, only Congress can hold the President to account.  When Bush began using his signing statements to expand executive power, Congress was controlled by his fellow Republicans, who tragically chose to put their being Republicans ahead of their being American legislators.  Their blatant lack of principle was a missed opportunity to rein in the executive branch. 

GOP success in stirring up the less astute among their supporters since 2008 to claim that virtually everything President Obama does is an affront deserving impeachment has exacerbated the problem: today, Republicans denounce everything Obama does as a crime.  Democrats have used that fact not only to rally their own less astute members but also to bolster the support of those in their ranks who are more informed and engaged.  Many people can see that the use of signing statements to exempt an administration from the law represents a threat to our republic, one that is frankly probably deserving of an impeachment trial.  That isn't going to happen, though, because Democrats are now content to put their own party affiliation ahead of being American legislators -- and they do so precisely because they know that, for Republicans, this is not about principle at all, and just about politics for the next election cycle.  No one in the Capitol is actually looking out for the long-term interest of the American people.

There's a little bit of discussion about all of this, of course.  It's a big deal, after all.  But there's not nearly as much discussion about the issue of Constitutional separation of powers as there is about SGT Bergdahl.  Among people who couldn't be bothered to care when five soldiers abandoned their checkpoint to execute a girl's family and gang-rape her before setting her corpse on fire, there's an absolute hysteria around the possibility that Bergdahl no longer believed in the Afghan War.  People on Facebook are saying that he is a traitor, that he should be executed, that he should have been left with the Taliban to rot and die.

Military people generally aren't saying this, mind you.  Even several of the soldiers from his unit who do think he deserted are content to see him investigated on those charges, while General McChrystal -- who previously held command in Afghanistan and doesn't generally agree with President Obama on anything -- said that “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.”

Politicians, meanwhile, can't spin it fast enough.  Republican Congressmen who initially tweeted "welcome home" messages deleted those tweets, and Senator John McCain is doing his best to explain why he told CNN in February that the administration should seriously consider an exchange but now says it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.  On the propaganda circuit, Bill O'Reilly repeatedly announced the Bergdahl's father "looked like a Muslim."



I understand why all of this is playing out the way it is.  It's June of 2014; there is an election only four short months away, and elections are all that we really care about in this country (though the party machines do their best to pretend it's all about substance). 

But we didn't care at all when five soldiers abandoned their checkpoint, shot a girl's family, gang-raped her, sprayed her with bullets, and set her body on fire with kerosene.  We just didn't care.  And now all of this outrage and vitriol for SGT Bergdahl being freed from captivity after five years?

It's so blatantly a political ploy that even CNN can see it.

Are the rest of us really, truly all that stupid?

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