I want to know more about Glenn Greenwald. I’ve been reading his columns for awhile online. He writes for Salon, and his left-of-center take on the pathologies of power in the United States seems dead right to me. He is the kind of guy I can imagine on my side in a fight.
But then I wonder: What happened to him?
Greenwald is a forty-something writer with four books under his belt. His latest book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, published by Henry Holt and Company, is a polemic about what he calls a "culture of impunity." The rule of law is on the endangered species list in the United States. Bankers, administration officials and those with wealth rarely feel the great and oppressive weight of the criminal law. The rest of us get crushed. He’s right, of course.
He reports that he spent 10 years as a "litigator who practiced for more than a decade in federal and state courts across the country." I can respect that although I suspect more than a little hyperbole is at play in his self-description. Lawyers fresh out of law school have a head full of book-learning; courtroom experience puts all this into perspective. There aren’t many lawyers worth much during their first few years practicing in court. Most spend their time apprenticing under more experienced lawyers – carrying briefcases, as we say in the trade.
So why did Greenwald leave the law just as he was learning to carry his own?
An entire book about liberty, justice, the betrayals of justice and not one word about qualified immunity, for example, that great thief in the night that is systematically robbing juries of the chance to sit in judgment over state actors who violate the law?
Yes, the current storm gathered shape and acquired momentum with Watergate, and President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, telling the nation that we must look to the future. This tendency of the power elite to forgive its own accelerated over the years. We’ve winked at presidents and presidential advisors using the proceeds of illegal sales of weapons to fund foreign wars Congress wouldn’t endorse – Iran-Contra. We went to war with Iraq on false pretenses. We’ve engage in routine acts of torture, eavesdropping and indefinite detention of folks in violation of both our own law and the law of nations. And let’s not forget the bankers, the monied men and women who crippled an economy, got bailed out at taxpayer expense, and not once appear to have faced prosecution for things would land the less well-heeled in jail for a good long time. Lest you think I am singling out Republicans for scorn, President Obama receives a full measure of scorn in Greenwald’s book.
Commenting on Bradley Manning and the prosecution of pranksters who came to the defense of Wikileaks by bringing mayhem to Visa, PayPal and Bank of America, Greenwald writes:
"To recap ‘Obama justice,’ then: if you create worldwide torture regime, illegally spy on Americans without warrants, abduct people with no legal authority, or invade and destroy another country based on false claims, then you are fully protected. But if you expose any of these lawless actions by publishing the truth about what was done, then you are a criminal who deserves the harshest possible prosecution."
It is true: We have but five percent of the world’s population, and yet we, we proud members of the land of the free and the home of the brave, imprison 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. These prisoners are more often than not poor, people of color, folks who have committed acts that would not yield imprisonment in many other nations.
Consider the Virginia couple sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors: they brought liquor to their home so that their son and his friends could celebrate a sixteenth birthday party. They took the car keys belonging to all the kids. No one was injured. Neighbors called the police on a noise complaint. Or how about the poor woman who threw a cup filled with soda into another car in an act of road rage? She was sentenced to two years for throwing a "missile" into another car. These prosecutions are simplty stupid.
Stories of the waste of human life and potential such as these make the blood boil. Why no immunity for little people? Do only billionaires and politicians warrant pardons and special breaks?
Why, I wonder, did Greenwalk leave the law when there are so many things to fight about, and all of them are but a courtroom away?
I wonder whether Greenwald left because he could not longer support the laws he had taken an oath to defend and serve. Reading him inspires an image of an expatriate sipping whatever it is they drink down in Brazil, one toe in the sea. As a hot sun bears down upon him, he must wonder whether returning home is worth it. You see he splits his time between Brazil and New York City. I get that. There are days I'd like to trade in my law license for something with a little more firepower.
The book was completed and sent to the printer well before the Occupy movement took shape and spread throughout the country. The movement did not take Greenwald by surprise. Near the end of the book, he writes: "[T]he dystopic future toward which the United States is inexorably hearing is not difficult to imagine. Even the most slothful and slumbering citizenry, trained to accept political impotence, has its limits. At some point, serious social unrest is the inevitable when a population is forced to suffer mass joblessness and deprivation of every kind while it sees a tiny sliver of elites enjoying gilded prosperity; ..."
Greenwald’s book is the prelude to a fistfight. I love that about it. But I still wonder about Greenwald’s decision to walk away from the law. Can anyone shed light?