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In the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly had some advice for black America: “Don’t abandon your children. Don’t get pregnant at 14. Don’t allow your neighborhoods to deteriorate into free-fire zones. That’s what the African-American community should have on their T-shirts.” (That’s either a very big garment or very small lettering.)
Whenever black kids get shot, black parents get lectured about personal responsibility. If you raised your kids better, goes the conservative logic, we wouldn’t have to shoot them. Arguments about systemic discrimination and racist legacies are derided as liberal excuses for bad behavior. Neither history nor economics nor politics made Mike Brown grab Darren Wilson’s gun—that was his choice. Individuals, we are told, are responsible for their own actions and must be held accountable for them.
The vehemence with which this principle is held is eclipsed only by the speed with which it is abandoned when it becomes inconvenient. Discussions about choices and accountability change tenor when we shift from talking about the black and the poor to the powerful and well-connected.
The release of the Senate’s torture report in December revealed far more extensive and brutal interrogation techniques than had been admitted previously, and it also confirmed that the CIA had lied to Congress, the White House and the media. This didn’t happen by itself. To take just one example, someone or some persons had to purée a mixture of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins; pour it into a tube; forcibly bend Majid Khan over; shove the tube up his anus and then “let gravity do the work.” And then they lied about it. The report showed without question that American interrogators were operating outside both domestic and international law. And yet none have been arrested and charged, let alone prosecuted.
Similarly, millions of Americans and many foreign leaders were spied upon by the NSA. A federal judge has ruled such actions unconstitutional. But metadata does not collect itself; instead, its collection was both ordered and executed by people who then lied about it until they were exposed. Not a single person has been held responsible. I have yet to hear Bill O’Reilly custom-design a T-shirt for those people.
Indeed, the only known arrests in these cases have been of those who exposed the crimes. Edward Snowden is on the run; Chelsea Manning—the source for WikiLeaks, which showed the US military killing innocents and laughing about it—is in jail; John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on waterboarding, is out of jail but still under house arrest. The crime, it seems, is not to break the law but to report the infraction.