Wanted: A few rough men
What do you do when your popularity starts to plummet and many of the promises that brought you to power prove illusory at best? You change the subject. Historically, show trials have been one way of diverting public attention. No matter that the people you put on trial have served your nation at considerable risk to themselves and to their families.
For example, whenever the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, wanted to divert attention from the ever-failing promises of socialist-communism, he conducted show trials. He even denounced the top generals who fought off the 155,000-man, multi-national force President Woodrow Wilson (D) and the leaders of 13 other nations sent to invade Russia in 1918.
During the Great Purges of the 1930s, Stalin subjected Generals Dybenko, Zhloba, and Marshal Tukhachevsky to show trials, and then had them shot. Two other Red Army heroes: Rasholnikov and Trotsky, were abroad. Stalin had them assassinated
In the U.S., matters are more refined. The head of the executive branch can arrange for his appointee, the head of the Department of Justice, to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a wide-ranging investigation into possible wrong-doing. The mission of a special prosecutor is, well…to prosecute. The special prosecutor is under the direct command of the executive branch and is expected to use small fish to catch larger fish.
Even if a special prosecutor can find no crime or crimes to prosecute, the targets of their efforts are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and their families are humiliated. It’s the death of a thousand paper cuts.
It is useful to pick targets who, by the nature of their government work (as in Top Secret), would have a difficult time defending themselves. Also, in the fullness of time, Americans tend to forget even the most horrific events. Recall, “Remember the Maine?” No. Okay. How about: “Remember Pearl Harbor?” Darn. Only a few hands out there.
There are some, however, who might remember the over 3,000 innocent lives lost on September 11, 2001. Some might even remember the intense public pressure for the Bush Administration to do something, anything, to prevent another 9/11. Does anyone remember that they got that job done? Good. A few more hands.
How many recall the wee hours of a summer morning in 1969 when a drunk driver drove his car off a bridge en route to the Harry Potter-sounding Chappaquiddick village, leaving a 28-year-old woman (not his wife) to suffocate in seven feet of water while the driver of the car swam off to hide in a motel room where he took ten hours to consult with his political advisers before reporting what he had done? Darn. Hardly any hands at all. See, that’s the thing about time.
It also helps to pick targets whose activities, whether accurately depicted or not, are the stuff of movies and television. Jack Bauer, of the TV series “24”, comes to mind. Maybe, a prescient George Orwell was imagining Jack Bauer when he said, “Men sleep peacefully in their beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
At the height of the Cold War, when our little team of intelligence-community organizers was in training to protect our nuclear secrets and weapons, our betters stressed the difference between immoral and illegal behavior. Morality was in; however, the legalistic Marquess of Queensberry was out. Don’t play fair, play to win. If need be, we might even break the laws of other nations, even our allies. Rough stuff was discouraged.
On one occasion, while shadowing (obviously, not well) a carload of Soviet agents, a box of those pointy objects that resemble children’s jumping jacks was spilled in front of us. Blown tires at West German autobahn speeds can be a bit annoying. If we could have caught up with the bad guys, we might have given them a rough, Obama-style talking-to.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. He is a member of the Association for Intelligence Officers. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2009. William Hamilton.